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Rashomon, Spin, and Media Coverage of the Libby Trial

Who's telling the "truth"?
(A still from the film Rashomon.)

Probably among others, the New Republic, Talking Points Memo, and Kevin Drum have all picked up on this snippet of reportage by Seth Stevenson of Slate, observing the antics at the Scooter Libby trial on Thursday:

The defense team wants to note—for the jury's benefit—that [Ari] Fleischer demanded immunity before he would agree to testify, because this might cast Fleischer's testimony in a different light.

And here Fitzgerald makes a nice little chess move: Fine, he says, we can acknowledge that Fleischer sought immunity. As long as we explain why. Turns out Fleischer saw a story in the Washington Post suggesting that anyone who revealed Valerie Plame's identity might be subject to the death penalty. And he freaked. 

Very amusing stuff.  Except for one thing — I don't think it's true.  Here's the Washington Post story the attorneys were fussing over… and it doesn't say anything about the death penalty:

The Intelligence Protection Act, passed in 1982, imposes maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and $50,000 in fines for unauthorized disclosure by government employees with access to classified information.

So what happened?  Looking over emptywheel's live-blogging paraphrase of the courtroom discussion, it seems like Seth might have misread a prosecutor's remark about Fleischer's reaction ("your heart goes in your throat") to mean something it didn't.  Or maybe Stevenson's recounting is accurate, and Team Fitz misspoke about the penalty. Or maybe Ari got confused by something he read somewhere other than that WaPo story.  Who knows?

Similarly, Friday's New York Times account of the trial by Scott Shane focuses, presumably for some kind of dramatic/metaphorical purpose, on a broken clock on the courtroom wall — overlooking the fact (brought to us by FDL's Aztec Inca-on-the-scene, Pachacutec) that there's another perfectly functioning clock on the other side of the room.

These are the kinds of things you learn when you have multiple observers to what's going on, including some who aren't bound by the "standards" or conventions of modern journalism.  One lesson is that you should examine carefully any purported scoops like this latest one by Newsweek's Michael Isikoff:

White House anxiety is mounting over the prospect that top officials—including deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and counselor Dan Bartlett-may be forced to provide potentially awkward testimony in the perjury and obstruction trial of Lewis (Scooter) Libby.

Both Rove and Bartlett have already received trial subpoenas from Libby’s defense lawyers, according to lawyers close to the case who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters. While that is no guarantee they will be called, the odds increased this week . . .

The possibility that Rove could be called to testify would bring his own role into sharper focus—and could prove important to Libby’s lawyers for several reasons. Rove has said in secret testimony that, during a chat on July 11, 2003, Libby told him he learned about Plame’s employment at the CIA from NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, a legal source who asked not to be identified talking about grand jury matters told NEWSWEEK. If Rove repeats that story on the witness stand, it could back up Libby’s core assertion that he honestly, if mistakenly, thought he had heard about Wilson’s wife from the “Meet the Press” host—even though Russert denies he knew anything about Plame, and more than a half-dozen officials (including Cheney) have said they passed along the same information to Libby earlier than that.

As the article admits, it's not as if Rove and Bartlett were notified yesterday that they might be called as witnesses.  What did happen Thursday is that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald drew a damaging admission from former co-worker Cathie Martin that Libby never said anything about Tim Russert or other reporters gossiping to him about Plame.  

So, my guess is that Libby's legal team immediately went out on damage-control duty to Isikoff and others afterward, reminding them that Rove theoretically could back up Libby's alibi.  Sourcing it anonymously makes it seem like Isikoff did some hard digging, when all he's doing is regurgitating spin. 

The moral: Don't always take what you read at face value.  Always ask yourself why you're hearing a particular piece of information at this particular moment, and remember that even an eyewitness may not have seen everything he or she thinks they saw. 

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (