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A Verdict on the Media’s Verdict on the Libby Trial

Not Guilty of Overt Celebration

by Mark Jurkowitz, Associate Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism

The jury has spoken in the perjury and obstruction trial of Scooter Libby that so intimately involved the journalism profession itself. We know the vice-president’s former top aide was found guilty. But now that the high-profile case is over, how did the press treat the verdict in the Scooter Libby trial? Who and what else did the media implicate in its post-verdict coverage?

From the outset, the media were inextricably linked in the case that led to Libby’s March 6 conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice. The criminal proceeding was triggered by a leak about CIA operative Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald challenged a key journalistic principle, a reporter’s ability to protect confidential sources. One reporter, Judy Miller, then of the New York Times, spent several months in jail in defense of that principle.

A number of high-profile journalists—including Miller, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, and NBC’s Tim Russert—testified in court. (Russert may have been the key witness.) The trial exposed the sometimes cozy inner workings of the Beltway press corps and their sources in high places. Moreover the broader backdrop to the case—the management of news and information in the buildup to the Iraq war—highlighted what many journalists acknowledge as a professional failure. That was the lack of serious, sustained scrutiny of administration claims that Saddam Hussein had a WMD arsenal.

There was no doubt that the Libby verdict would generate major coverage, but what about the tone and texture of that coverage? (A Wall Street Journal editorial declared that much of the press was “celebrating the conviction…because it damaged the Bush administration they loathe.”) To get a broad sense of that reaction, PEJ took a snapshot of verdict coverage on cable and network news, examined March 7 front-page newspaper headlines and conducted an Internet key word search for stories about the verdict.

The overall results of this varied snapshot would suggest that, with some exceptions, the early verdict coverage was reasonably straightforward, with little hint of overt celebration. At the same time, many of the stories clearly and sharply connected Libby’s conviction to his boss Dick Cheney as well the White House’s overall prosecution of the unpopular war in Iraq.

Cable and Network TV

All three cable news networks were ready when the verdict came in around noon on March 6. But the early reactions of the key commentators varied markedly.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was cautious and circumspect, stating simply that “no doubt, for Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame, this will be vindication.”

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was not as restrained. “This is not about perjury, it’s about the larger question of how we got in this war with Iraq,” he declared. “It has left…a cloud over the vice president himself. It is going to be very hard for this vice president to separate himself from this verdict.”

Much of the conversation on the Fox News Channel immediately after the verdict was about apparent confusion on the part of jurors and the possibility of an appeal. But when analyst Fred Barnes appeared later in the discussion, he contended the result was “damaging to the White House, no question about that. It’s even more damaging to Vice President Cheney. I would stop short of calling it politically devastating, however.”

Later that night, the Libby verdict led all three network newscasts. On ABC, correspondent Pierre Thomas’s summary was concise, but hard-hitting: “At its heart, the prosecution said, the Libby trial was about a vice president and his staff obsessed with pushing back against critics” of the war.

Broadcasting from Baghdad, Brian Williams opened the NBC newscast by characterizing the Libby trial as “a case that has to do with the very underpinnings of this war here in Iraq.” He then interviewed a subdued “star witness,” Russert, who said, “I take no joy in this Brian. It was not our doing.”

The most outspoken of the network pundits was CBS veteran Bob Schieffer who declared that “there are a lot of fingers pointing tonight at Dick Cheney…I think it’s gonna hurt the administration because it’s gonna raise questions about their credibility when they already have more problems on their plate than they can really handle right now.”

The Page 1 Headlines

The PEJ also examined the March 7 front pages of more than 230 daily papers that were posted on the web site of the Newseum, an interactive museum of news. The overwhelming majority of page-1 verdict headlines fell into one of two broad categories.

By our count, a solid majority—166 of those papers—featured relatively straightforward headlines that focused primarily on the news of the trial result itself.

“Libby Convicted of Lying: Former White House Aide Likely to Keep Fighting Charge,” said the Portland Press Herald. “Libby most senior aide convicted since 1980s: Found guilty of lying to leak investigators,” was the headline on the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald Leader.

The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne Indiana had a variation on the theme with this headline: “‘I forgot’ defense fails: Jury charted testimony: Cheney aide faces up to 25 years in prison.”

A substantial minority—66 papers—featured the second theme, focusing on the broader and sometimes negative implications for the White House and its policies.

“Libby trial leaves Cheney weaker: Critics and some supporters say verdicts diminish the vice president’s stature,” read the headline on The (Portland) Oregonian. “Trial exposed Cheney’s secretive workings: Libby guilty verdict stings administration most,” was the reaction in The Dallas Morning News.

The San Diego Union-Tribune went with “Libby lied in leak case tied to war, jurors say: Former Cheney aide found guilty of four felony counts.”

Ten headlines also used the word “fall guy” to describe Libby and to at least raise the possibility that he was largely punished for someone else’s misdeeds. The term was injected into the media story line when juror Denis Collins, in his post-verdict remarks, said he and his fellow jurors wondered about Libby being set up as the “fall guy.”

The News Search

What terms were laced throughout the broader coverage of the Libby guilty verdict? According to a Google News search for March 6 and 7 that paired “Scooter Libby” with a series of words that might describe the trial, “fall guy” did make an occasional appearance.

This keyword search doesn’t necessarily provide solid clues as to the actual tone of the trial coverage. But it does serve as a quick guide to other themes or key players that were part of the verdict stories.

The White House tie-in was obvious. The most crucial connection was Cheney, whose name was mentioned in approximately 4,100 stories about the verdict, even though he ultimately didn’t testify. President Bush’s name appeared in about 3,400 stories. Lower down on the totem pole was presidential aide Karl Rove (at about 750 stories) who was injected into the proceedings when Libby attorney Ted Wells argued in his opening statement that his client was concerned he was being sacrificed to protect Rove.

Meanwhile, Russert’s critical role in this case is illustrated by the nearly 1400 stories that contained his name.

One question already being raised in the wake of the verdict is obvious. The word “pardon” appeared in almost 500 stories in the first hours after the end of the trial.

Two other words that turned up in the search of verdict stories suggest some fairly unfavorable associations.

The word “Iraq” was included in more than 3,300 of the Libby stories. And “Iran contra” — the major Reagan-era political scandal that led to criminal indictments of some key administration figures — appeared in nearly 300 of the accounts of Libby’s conviction.

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