Morning News Shows Hype 'Cloud' Over Cheney, Skip Critics of Wilsons, Fitzgerald, Armitage

Like the Tuesday evening shows, Wednesday’s network morning shows leaned heavily on the Democratic narrative toward the Scooter Libby convictions, highlighting the high dudgeon against the Bush administration by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Joe Wilson, and former reporter/juror Denis Collins, while ignoring any angle that would balance the story with any critique of Fitzgerald, the Wilsons, or State Department official Richard Armitage, who withheld the fact that he leaked to Robert Novak, which started the whole scandal train. Reporters made no reference to how Fitzgerald, knowing Armitage was the leaker, could have cut his investigation short; or how the Wilsons, far from victims, have made two book deals and a movie deal, and how Joe Wilson shamelessly campaigned for a job with President-to-be John Kerry; or how the trial made the media look bad, since the memories of reporters were as bad or worse than Libby’s memory. Here’s how the three networks summed it all up:-- On ABC’s Good Morning America, anchor Robin Roberts began in hyperbolic historical terms: "We begin with the highest ranking White House official to be convicted since the Iran-Contra affair some two decades ago. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby was once a close advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, now he could face up to 25 years in prison for lying and obstructing the CIA leak investigation. ABC’s Pierre Thomas joins us from Washington with the fallout about this."(The ABC graphic made sure to include Cheney: "Cheney Aide Guilty: What Does it Mean For the White House?") Thomas began with the typical last-thing-Bush-needs setup: "Robin, with bad news coming out about the Iraq war almost daily, this may be the last thing the administration needs. As you said, Libby is now the highest ranking member of the Bush administration convicted of a felony. Libby's wife fought back tears as the jury read its verdict. The reality was sinking in that her husband now faces up to 25 years in prison Libby was stoic as his defense attorney vowed to appeal." Ted Wells: "He is totally innocent. Totally innocent." Thomas portrayed Fitzgerald as the righteous guardian of the law: "Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said no one is above the law." Patrick Fitzgerald: "The truth is what drives our judicial system. If people don't come forward and tell the truth, we have no hope of making the judicial system work." Thomas then turned to the Plame identity "leak," but ignored Armitage and glossed over another major issue by describing Valerie Plame as a "one-time" covert CIA agent: "The jury concluded Libby lied to investigators looking into who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, a one time covert CIA officer. The jury believed the prosecution’s argument that Libby lied to cover up a campaign by the Vice President to discredit Joe Wilson, an administration critic." But if campaigns to discredit critics were illegal, how many Clinton administration officials would have gone to jail? Thomas should know that this kind of rhetoric out of a prosecutor sounds like a partisan "Hardball" appearance, not a staid legal argument. From there, it was on to the blabby juror:

Denis Collins (juror): "He was the fall guy. And, you know, it, it, it just seemed, again, like I said, some, some jurors commented at some point, I wish we weren't judging Libby. You know, this sucks. This is- You know, we don't like being here, doing this. But, that wasn't our choice." Thomas: "Prosecutors said Libby's actions left a dark cloud over the Vice President's office." Michael Levy (Former federal prosecutor): "I think the jury looked at the context of the, of the entire case. And the context of the entire case was clearly shaped by the Vice President."

Thomas did not explain that it was Fitzgerald who uncorked the "cloud over Cheney" line, which again sounds awfully political for a straight-arrow prosecutor. Thomas continued:

"Vice President Cheney released a statement saying he was very disappointed with the verdict and that he was saddened for Scooter and his family. President Bush watched news reports of the conviction in the Oval Office." Dana Perino (Deputy White House Press Secretary): "He respected the jury's verdict, that he was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family." Thomas: "The White House refused to comment on a possible pardon for Libby, saying such speculation was extremely premature. And the legal fight for the Bush administration is only beginning. Joe Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame have filed a lawsuit. Not only against Libby, but also against Vice President Cheney, and also key White House advisor Karl Rove."

So Thomas highlighted the danger the Wilsons represent to Cheney and Rove, but not the raft of book and movie deals they’ve landed. -- On CBS’s The Early Show, Gloria Borger’s report didn’t mention Armitage, and didn’t even include any soundbite from anyone defending Libby or the Bush team. Harry Smith began with a note in passing: "Lawyers for Lewis 'Scooter' Libby say they will ask for a new trial. Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff was found guilty of lying and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak case. CBS News national political correspondent Gloria Borger is live in Washington with more. Good morning, Gloria."Gloria Borger also cranked up the hype machine of the verdict’s massive importance:

"Good morning, Harry. It took four years of investigation and then ten days for the jury to decide. And in the end, they delivered a verdict that shook the White House and ground zero was the vice president's office."Patrick Fitzgerald, again the portrait of virtue: "The nature of any person telling a lie under oath to a grand jury is a serious problem. Having someone, a high level official, do that under oath in a national security investigation is something that can never be acceptable."Borger: "The jury found that Lewis 'Scooter' Libby lied about his conversations with reporters regarding the identity of an undercover CIA agent. The vice president's former chief of staff, who stood motionless when the verdict was read, said he simply forgot the conversations because he was so busy with national security matters. The jury didn't buy it."Denis Collins, Juror: "How he could remember it on a Tuesday and then forget it on a Thursday and then remember it two days later."

Borger’s summary of the case was riddled with politics:

"Like most things in Washington, the heart of this case involves a political dispute. Libby was at the center of the White House's case for war in Iraq. His boss, the vice president, was rattled by this: An article in July 2003 attacking the administration's rationale for war that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It was written by Ambassador Joe Wilson, who was sent to Africa by the CIA to look into whether Saddam was buying ingredients there to make a nuclear weapon. Wilson said he was not. Cheney wanted Wilson discredited. He knew that his wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA. On a clipping of Wilson's column, he wrote, 'did his wife send him on a junket?' To undermine the importance of the mission, Cheney wanted to spread the word that Wilson's wife sent him and he asked Libby to do it."

Borger’s summary completely disregarded what a bipartisan Senate panel found in 2004: that Valerie Plame did campaign inside the CIA to send her husband on the Niger "junket," contrary to Joe Wilson’s public claims, and that Wilson’s Niger report actually bolstered the case against Iraq to most intelligence analysts. Perhaps Borger couldn’t explain this, because they Cheney’s "campaign to discredit" could also be cast an attempt to get out true facts on the Wilsons. Borger then highlighted Denis Collins:

"But the big question on the juror's minds was, what was this guy doing here?"Collins: "Where's Rove? Where's, you know -- where are these other guys? We're not saying that we didn't think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of, but that it seemed like he was the fall guy."Borger: "Libby will most likely get one and a half to three years. His lawyers are going to ask for a new trial. But if that fails, Libby, of course, will appeal. Harry."

Harry Smith asked: "The vice president was not asked to come and defend -- in defense of 'Scooter' Libby. Why not?"Borger said Cheney would have been destroyed on the stand: "Well, I think they were worried that it could really backfire. Of course, he was a witness for the defense. He could have gotten on that witness stand, Harry, and a prosecutor could have ripped him apart. And in the end that would have only made 'Scooter' Libby look worse so I think they decided to hold off on that one, although in the end it didn't help Libby very much." -- On NBC’s Today, Meredith Vieira reported "We're gonna turn to some very troubling news, this morning as well, for the White House. The conviction of Vice President Cheney's former right hand man, Scooter Libby, for lying to a grand jury and FBI agents looking into the leaking of a CIA official's identity."Reporter Kelly O’Donnell’s story was fairly straightforward, but in mentioning the role of Richard Armitage, she discussed it very vaguely, and not precisely, that Armitage was the source of Robert Novak, the source of years of outrage for "outing" Plame’s name. She said merely that Armitage and Karl Rove "had talked to reporters about the secret CIA operative." That phrasing also suggested to the view that Plame was a covert agent at that time, which is still unclear:

Kelly O'Donnell: "And good morning, Meredith. From here at the White House we're seeing slightly different reactions from President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Aides say the President is saddened but accepts the jury's decision while Vice President Cheney called the verdict disappointing and he remained especially loyal saying Libby had served the country with great distinction. Convicted on four of the five felony counts the Vice President's former chief-of-staff, Lewis Scooter Libby will ask for a new trial and appeal the guilty verdicts. Libby attorney, Ted Wells."Ted Wells: "And we intend to keep fighting to establish his innocence."O'Donnell: "Courthouse conventional wisdom suggests the longer a jury takes the better for the defense. Libby's jury spent 10 days on the case. Juror Dennis Collins, a former reporter for the Washington Post, says some did believe one defense claim, that Libby was a White House scapegoat."Dennis Collins: "That we're not saying that we didn't think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of but that it seemed like he was, to put it in Mr. Wells' point of view, he was the fall guy."O'Donnell: "Though other officials including Karl Rove and former State Department official Richard Armitage had talked to reporters about the secret CIA operative, Valerie Wilson, whose diplomat husband, Joe, had become a leading war critic. Only Libby was charged and not for the leak but for lying about his own role. Libby was found guilty of obstruction of justice, lying to the FBI and perjury before a grand jury. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald."Patrick Fitzgerald: "Having someone, a high-level official do that under oath in a national security investigation is something that is, can never be acceptable."O'Donnell: "And while the White House expressed 'sadness' for Libby and his family Joe Wilson says he is pleased by the verdict but not the President's response."Joe Wilson: "I would feel better had the President, in addition to or instead of expressing sorrow for Mr. Libby and his family if he had expressed sorrow for what had been done to my wife."O'Donnell: "And while there is a lot of political fallout to calculate for Libby what comes next is the potential of a prison sentence. Now the maximum for these four counts is 25 years. But legal experts say what would be much more likely would be something under three years. And of course he's appealing and he'll try to get a new trial."

Also omitted from all three stories: how journalists performed on the stand, how their memories held up, or didn't. How convenient it must be for the media to ignore the media witnesses and what they did to Libby, or how they compared to him on credibility.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis