Playing by the “rules”

Playing by the “rules”
: Cleveland Plain Dealer editor-in-chief and blogger Doug Clifton looks at at Richard Clarke and sees an issue with background briefings and unnamed sources and spin and the rules of the game called government and the press. Clarke said one thing in his book and another in a background briefing. He tried to explain away the contradiction saying that he was spinning the company spin at the briefing. Says Clifton:

On one level, that’s understandable. Haven’t we all defended the institutions we work for out of loyalty, obligation, self-preservation?

On the other hand, when does principle trump loyalty, obligation, self-preservation? Should Clarke have told his bosses, “I can’t, in conscience, spin for you”? Should he have threatened to quit in protest? Should he have availed himself of the other time-honored Washington tradition, leaked his real feelings -on background – to a well-placed reporter?

At this point that’s all academic and a cloud remains over the credibility of Clarke’s testimony because he played by the rules of Washington. He spun on background in support of the administration he worked for and expected the conventions to be honored.

In so doing he forgot the more basic rule of Washington, first described by Harry Truman: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Let’s assume Clarke’s version of things is true. He thought the Bush administration was being less than attentive to the terrorist threat but when called upon to do the administration’s bidding in a background briefing, he played the good soldier.

With the help of a cooperative and, I would add, co-opted, press the American public was mislead on this vital question.

And because briefing on background is so pervasive in Washington, misleading the public is the norm, not the exception.

If the rules of journalism were changed and the use of the unnamed source were banned, would the public have a truer sense of reality?

That’s a discussion for another day.

Strong words, blunt questions.

[Full disclosure: is one of my day-job sites.]