A funny thing happened to David Letterman this week. Actually, it only started out funny. And the unfunny ending fits into a disturbing pattern.
On Monday, Mr. Letterman ran a video clip of a boy yawning and fidgeting during a speech by George Bush. It was harmless stuff; a White House that thinks it's cute to have Mr. Bush make jokes about missing W.M.D. should be able to handle a little ribbing about boring speeches.
CNN ran the Letterman clip on Tuesday, just before a commercial. Then the CNN anchor Daryn Kagan came back to inform viewers that the clip was a fake: "We're being told by the White House that the kid, as funny as he was, was edited into that video." Later in the day, another anchor amended that: the boy was at the rally, but not where he was shown in the video.
On his Tuesday night show, Mr. Letterman was not amused: "That is an out and out 100 percent absolute lie. The kid absolutely was there, and he absolutely was doing everything we pictured via the videotape."
But here's the really interesting part: CNN backed down, but it told Mr. Letterman that Ms. Kagan "misspoke," that the White House was not the source of the false claim. (So who was? And if the claim didn't come from the White House, why did CNN run with it without checking?)
In short, CNN passed along a smear that it attributed to the White House. When the smear backfired, it declared its previous statements inoperative and said the White House wasn't responsible. Sound familiar?
On Tuesday, I mentioned remarks by CNN's Wolf Blitzer; here's a fuller quote, just to remove any ambiguity: "What administration officials have been saying since the weekend, basically, that Richard Clarke from their vantage point was a disgruntled former government official, angry because he didn't get a certain promotion. He's got a hot new book out now that he wants to promote. He wants to make a few bucks, and that his own personal life, they're also suggesting there are some weird aspects in his life."
Stung by my column, Mr. Blitzer sought to justify his words, saying that his statement was actually a question, and also saying that "I was not referring to anything charged by so-called unnamed White House officials as alleged today." Silly me: I "alleged" that Mr. Blitzer said something because he actually said it, and described "so-called unnamed" officials as unnamed because he didn't name them.
Mr. Blitzer now says he was talking about remarks made on his own program by a National Security Council spokesman, Jim Wilkinson. But Mr. Wilkinson's remarks are hard to construe as raising questions about Mr. Clarke's personal life.
Instead, Mr. Wilkinson seems to have questioned Mr. Clarke's sanity, saying, "He sits back and visualizes chanting by bin Laden, and bin Laden has a mystical mind control over U.S. officials. This is sort of `X-Files' stuff." Really?
On Page 246 of "Against All Enemies," Mr. Clarke bemoans the way the invasion of Iraq, in his view, played right into the hands of Al Qaeda: "Bush handed that enemy precisely what it wanted and needed. . . . It was as if Usama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush." That's not " `X-Files' stuff": it's a literary device, meant to emphasize just how ill conceived our policy is. Mr. Blitzer should be telling Mr. Wilkinson to apologize, not rerunning those comments in his own defense.
Look, I understand why major news organizations must act respectfully toward government officials. But officials shouldn't be sure — as Mr. Wilkinson obviously was — that they can make wild accusations without any fear that they will be challenged on the spot or held accountable later.
And administration officials shouldn't be able to spread stories without making themselves accountable. If an administration official is willing to say something on the record, that's a story, because he pays a price if his claims are false. But if unnamed "administration officials" spread rumors about administration critics, reporters have an obligation to check the facts before giving those rumors national exposure. And there's no excuse for disseminating unchecked rumors because they come from "the White House," then denying the White House connection when the rumors prove false. That's simply giving the administration a license to smear with impunity.
Originally published in The New York Times, 4.2.04