Good laws, bad laws and the media

For the Bush administration, there are good laws and there are bad laws. The good ones, of course, are the laws they can use to pursue their agenda. The bad ones, of course, are the laws that stand in the way of their illegal behavior.

When speaking about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, President Bush said, "Secondly, the FISA law was written in 1978. We're having this discussion in 2006. It's a different world."Bad law.

When cracking down on leaks that both embarrass the White House and reveal its lawlessness, the Justice Department is now arguing that reporters who "received and published classified information"could be prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act. Good law.

See the difference?

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Media Continues to Push "Dems Dislike Dean" Stories

With all of the damaging stories about the Bush administration and the Republican Party, it seems that reporters have a hankering for stories that represent a knock on the Democratic Party, if only to create some "balance" in their reporting. The most common class of these stories fits in with the tired meme that the "Democrats are devoid of ideas," which of course is not the case (or at least not more so than any other major political party or movement). A second, but only slightly less well known class is this: Howard Dean is doing a poor job as DNC Chairman, or more precisely that Democratic leaders in Washington are unhappy with Dean's tenure, thusfar. A prime example of this set of stories comes in today's issue of The Washington Post in an article penned by Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza.

Democratic congressional leaders aren't happy with the way Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean is spending money. At a private meeting last month, they let him know.

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) challenged the former Vermont governor during a session in Pelosi's office, according to Democratic sources. The leaders complained about Dean's priorities -- funding organizers for state parties in strongly Republican states such as Mississippi -- rather than targeting states with crucial races this fall.

Balz and Cillizza continue by repeating the same complaints we have been hearing all year, citing "one congressional Democrat" who is unhappy with Dean's focus on the finances and staffing of state parties rather than building a warchest for the 2006 midterms. Of course, there is no mention of who this "congressional Democrat" is or why, for that matter, he or she was granted blanket anonymity for this story. It's not as if the Democrat would face criminal prosecution for such a leak, as might a government whistleblower, so why, exactly, are Balz and Cillizza allowing him or her to sling mud without being named? The only explanation I can come up with is that the two reporters are simply trying to forward the overstated meme that Democrats are hopelessly unable to coalesce.

Is there a place in journalism for stories about intraparty struggles? Certainly. But there are fundamental differences between policy struggles (i.e. differences among Democrats on how best to improve the situation in Iraq) or struggles between the two branches (Congressional Republicans rebuking President Bush over stem cell research, for instance) and tactical squabbles, such as where party finances should be directed. The latter class of stories are worth reporting from time to time, but they are not of equal importance as those stories falling in the first two categories, nor should they receive equal amounts of coverage.

In addition to my qualms about the content and tenor of the Balz/Cillizza story, I'm also having trouble understanding why this article was published today. There's nothing particularly timely about the information contained in the Balz/Cillizza piece; the purported meeting took place over a month ago, and there's no explanation of why this story is germane now. What's more, even if such news were fit for printing in The Washington Post, there's nothing new or groundbreaking about this story. Reporters have been saying exactly the same thing -- that Congressional Democrats are unhappy with Howard Dean -- since the beginning of Dean's tenure as Chairman, and probably even before then, when Dean was only running for the position.

This is not about defending Howard Dean against attacks from within the Democratic Party. I'm not Dean's biggest supporter  in the progressive blogosphere. I wasn't a Deaniac during the 2004 primaries and probably won't be one during the 2008 primaries, should he decide to run. But I'm frankly getting tired of reading the exact same story, month after month, about purported Democratic infighting surrounding Dean's tenure as DNC Chairman. Yes, Democrats bear some of the onus for these stories, as these stories could not be published were it not for individual members of the party complaining about Dean to reporters. But it's also time for journalists to begin ferreting out the real news from rubbish and get back to covering issues that actually deserve square inches of print.

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When experts are biased

If there's one thing I hate more than lazy journalism, it's when the reporters in question rely on one point of view and allow that to speak for both sides of the story. That's how, for instance, someone from a seemingly nonpartisan-sounding think tank spouts overtly partisan views, while audiences think it's coming from a neutral point of view.

The results, as we know, aren't pretty. Unsuspecting individuals get the wrong sense of a story, coloring opinions. And without this objectivity, stories may as well be Republican Party-issued talking-points sheets.

The latest example occurred this week in Ohio, a state already plagued by the petty partisanship of ruling Republicans. This time, an Associated Press reporter who should have known better unnecessarily gave readers the sense that churches' overt, one-sided political campaigning doesn't represent illegal, unethical behavior.

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