Here is everything U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said at his news conference Tuesday about any possible involvement Barack Obama might have had with the alleged attempt of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to sell Obama’s newly vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder:
I should make clear, the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever, his conduct. This part of the scheme lost steam when the person that the governor thought was the president- elect’s choice of senator took herself out of the running. But after the deal never happened, this is the governor’s reaction, quote, “They’re not willing to give me anything but appreciation. Bleep them,” close quote. And again, the bleep is a redaction….
But we ask that the press, in particular, recognize that we’re not casting aspersions on people other than the two people we charged, and bear that in mind and be responsible….
Okay. I’m not going to speak for what the president-elect was aware of. We make no allegations that he’s aware of anything, and that’s as simply as I can put it….
So I simply pointed out that if you look at the complaint, there’s no allegation that the president-elect—there’s no reference in the complaint to any conversations involving the president-elect or indicating that the president-elect was aware of it. And that’s all I can say….
[Q: Sir, just to be crystal-clear on this point, you’re not aware of any conversation, then, that took place between the governor and any member of Barack Obama’s transition team at all?]
And what I simply said is you can read the complaint. I’m not going to sit here with a seventy-six-page complaint and parse through it. You know, that’s all we’re alleging. And I’m just—I’m not going to start going down and saying, “Did anyone ever talk to anyone?” You can read what we allege in the complaint. It’s pretty detailed. Look in the seventy-six pages, and if you don’t see it, it’s not there.
Once upon a time, a blanket statement like that would have led reporters to say in their stories, “The U.S. Attorney said there was no evidence that Obama was involved in any way with the governor’s effort.” And then moved on from there.
Sinners: Mike McIntire and Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times, for a truly exotic story about how Obama was somehow besmirched by a role in all this. Last September, at the height of the presidential campaign, Obama successfully lobbied his political mentor, the president of the Illinois State Senate, to override the governor’s veto of an ethics reform bill. Per McIntire and Zeleny: “After the call from Mr. Obama, the Senate overrode the veto, prompting the governor to press state contractors for campaign contributions before the law’s restrictions could take effect on Jan. 1, prosecutors say.”
Sounds like Obama couldn’t be cleaner on this issue, right? But according to the Times, there’s a dark side to all of this:
Mr. Obama’s unusual decision to inject himself into a statewide issue during the height of his presidential campaign was a reminder that despite his historic ascendancy to the White House, he has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics. It is a world he has long navigated, to the consternation of his critics, by engaging in a kind of realpolitik, Chicago-style, which allowed him to draw strength from his relationships with important players without becoming compromised by their many weaknesses.
Here is how Winner and Philadelphia Daily Newser Will Bunch dissected the problems with the Times reporters’ approach, in a column titled “Obama’s support of ethics reform is good news for the GOP…or Rudy Giuliani, or something like that”:
Seriously, I’m trying to get my arms around this new story on the Blagojevich scandal that The New York Times has put out there. The lede of the article is tantalizing:
In a sequence of events that neatly captures the contradictions of Barack Obama’s rise through Illinois politics, a phone call he made three months ago to urge passage of a state ethics bill indirectly contributed to the downfall of a fellow Democrat he twice supported, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.
Mr. Obama placed the call to his political mentor, Emil Jones Jr., president of the Illinois Senate. Mr. Jones was a critic of the legislation, which sought to curb the influence of money in politics, as was Mr. Blagojevich, who had vetoed it. But after the call from Mr. Obama, the Senate overrode the veto, prompting the governor to press state contractors for campaign contributions before the law’s restrictions could take effect on Jan. 1, prosecutors say.
OK, so what I’m getting from that is that Barack Obama supports ethics in government, that he doesn’t think state contractors should be making large campaign contributions. Hey, that’s a good thing, right?
Uh, according to The New York Times, not necessarily:
Beyond the irony of its outcome, Mr. Obama’s unusual decision to inject himself into a statewide issue during the height of his presidential campaign was a reminder that despite his historic ascendancy to the White House, he has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics. It is a world he has long navigated, to the consternation of his critics, by engaging in a kind of realpolitik, Chicago-style, which allowed him to draw strength from his relationships with important players without becoming compromised by their many weaknesses.
“Beyond the irony of its outcome…”? Huh? How about…beyond the irony of the fact that an Obama phone call for an ethics reform bill — strongly opposed by none other than Rod Blagojevich — is an excuse to somehow tie him to the “murky” world of Chicago politics. Look (as Obama himself might say), there’s some interesting new information in this Times article, but their basic perspective is all upside-down wrong.
Did it occur to them that maybe Obama was elected 44th president of the United States exactly because he HAS escaped “the murky and insular world of Illinois politics”? When people ask why would someone like Obama involve himself in Chicago politics, the bottom line is Chicago is where he lived — he moved there to organize laid-off steelworkers, got a job there and then even married a Windy City native.
Most people run for office in THE CITY WHERE THEY LIVE — that caused Obama to cross paths with an interesting cast of characters, but in the case of Rod Blagojevich, it seems like once he took the measure of the man he didn’t want much to do with him. He had little to do with Blago after 2006, didn’t even ask him to speak at the Dem convention in 2008, and his people didn’t give the governor the time of day regarding his recent Senate machinations. Obama mostly kept their “murky” world at arm’s length, which is a reason why he is president-elect and why the notion that a machine hack like Blagojevich could even think about running for president in 2016 is almost proof of his insanity.
But this Times story is Day One of what is going to be a brand new silly season in American politics, just when you thought it was safe. No matter how much the next few days demonstrate that Obama didn’t want any part of Blago’s scam, every phone call in which a junior staffer didn’t immediately hang up, or any time that Obama and Blagojevich were in the same room and Obama didn’t slap a pair of cuffs on the governor will be more proof of the “murky” circles that Obama travels in.
Wait until they found out that Obama’s set foot in Philadelphia, too.
Sinners: For a whole series of similarly ridiculous stories, see all of them cited in this morning’s Note from ABC News—except, of course, The Note doesn’t characterize them that way.
Winner: Dave Aeikens, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, for calling on NBC News six days ago “to sever the network’s relationship with retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey to re-establish the integrity of its reporting on military-related issues, including the war in Iraq” in the wake of David Barstow’s brilliant investigation of McCaffrey’s multiple conflicts of interest, which I discussed here last week.
NBC ignored the SPJ entirely until Full Court Press asked NBC’s senior vice president for media relations, Allison Gollust, for a comment. Reaching for FCP’s chutzpah award of 2008, Sinner Gollust offered this response:
SPJ’s Ethics Committee came to its conclusion without seeking any information or facts from NBC News—they simply took the reporting of David Barstow as evidence of an ethical problem at NBC News. For a group of journalists in an organization that supposedly is committed to a “free-flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry,” we find this rush to judgement unfortunate and irresponsible.
Note to Gollust: The reporting of Barstow is indisputable evidence of a gigantic ethical problem at NBC News. That’s why it wasn’t necessary to contact you before making a very obvious recommendation.
FCP also asked, “Has NBC ever mentioned this controversy on Nightly News, or any of its other broadcasts? If so, please tell me when and where.” Gollust replied, “We covered it following the first article in April.” However, FCP is quite certain the controversy has never been mentioned on Nightly News, and Gollust ignored three requests to point us to specific broadcasts in which it was covered. According to one of Glenn Greenwald’s posts last week, Gollust’s answer is a lie: “Clocks were even created to count the number of days the networks blackballed Barstow’s story—and it currently stands at 223 days, and counting.”
Winner: Blogger Jerome Little for remembering that back in May of 2000, the indispensable Sy Hersh wrote 25,000 words in the New Yorker suggesting that McCaffrey might have committed war crimes during the first Gulf War, by carrying out an all-out attack on “a retreating Republican Guard tank division off Highway 8 west of Basra.” Hersh wrote,
McCaffrey’s assault was one of the biggest and most one-sided-of the Gulf War, but no journalists appear to have been in the area at the time, and, unlike the “highway of death,” it did not produce pictures and descriptions that immediately appeared on international television and in the world press….
McCaffrey refused to be interviewed by Hersh but issued a statement denying any wrongdoing. The bottom line in Hersh’s piece:
McCaffrey’s insistence that the Iraqis attacked first was disputed in interviews for this article by some of his subordinates in the wartime headquarters of the 24th Division, and also by soldiers and officers who were at the scene on March 2nd. The accounts of these men, taken together, suggest that McCaffrey’s offensive, two days into a ceasefire, was not so much a counterattack provoked by enemy fire as a systematic destruction of Iraqis who were generally fulfilling the requirements of the retreat; most of the Iraqi tanks travelled from the battlefield with their cannons reversed and secured, in a position known as travel-lock. According to these witnesses, the 24th faced little determined Iraqi resistance at any point during the war or its aftermath; they also said that McCaffrey and other senior officers exaggerated the extent of Iraqi resistance throughout the war.
Update: Yesterday, NBC News senior vice president Allison Gollust issued the statement above, attacking the Society for Professional Journalists for failing to contact NBC before it called upon the network to sever its ties to General Barry McCaffrey.
It turns out Ms. Gollust’s accusation is flatly false.
Today, Scott A. Leadingham, Communications Coordinator, Society of Professional Journalists, supplied FCP with a copy of this e-mail, which he sent to Ms. Gollust the day before SPJ issued its statement. Leadingham told FCP he also spoke with Gollust’s assistant twice on the day he sent the e-mail, but Ms. Gollust never responded to any of his messages. Here is the e-mail:
Hello, Ms. Gollust.
I’m contacting you in regard to the Society of Professional Journalists responding to media reports about NBC analyst Gen. Barry McCaffrey. Our ethics committee is preparing to issue a statement calling on NBC to sever its relationship with Gen. McCaffrey in light of a conflict of interest recently reported by the New York Times. Specifically, the ethic committee is calling on NBC News President Steve Capus and Nightly News Anchor/Managing Editor Brian Williams to respond.
Before issuing such a statement, however, SPJ would like to give NBC a chance to respond. If NBC so chooses, we will include your response in our statement, in the interest of fairness.
Please contact me by phone or e-mail at your earliest convenience. We would like to issue this statement before the end of the week.
Scott A. Leadingham Society of Professional Journalists
Update II: Ms. Gollust confirmed to FCP today that, contrary to another statement she made yesterday, no NBC News Broadcast has ever made any mention of the McCaffrey controversy since David Barstow’s first article ran in The New York Times last spring.
Update III: Ms. Gollust responds:
My statement of yesterday still stands, and I take issue with your accusation that I am a liar. I am not.
Mr. Leadingham, and SPJ, offered me the opportunity to respond to the findings and subsequent actions of the Ethics Committee. By the time he offered us the chance to respond, the Committee had already come to their conclusions, as is evidenced in his note. We decided not to offer a statement in their release, as is our prerogative.
As for our coverage, when I told you that we covered it in April, I was referring to Brian’s “Daily Nightly” blog, as well as the brief mention on MSNBC, per my earlier email. The majority of the limited response we had to the initial article was on the “Daily Nightly” site and other internet sites, so we determined that was the most appropriate way to respond.
I believe that answers all your questions.
FCP: This ignores the fact that Gollust’s statement about SPJ left the clear impression that the organization had made no effort to contact NBC News before it called upon the network to sever its ties to McCaffrey. And her statement to FCP yesterday that NBC had covered this controversy in April was in response to the question, “Has NBC ever covered this on any of its broadcasts?” It was not a question about MSNBC, or about Brian Williams’s posting—which I first wrote about here—immediately after he made it.Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.