He Voted Against Having a Source Before He Voted For It and Other Highlights from Tim Russert’s Testimony

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The consensus among those on the right-hand second row of the court room yesterday was that the defense’s rambling, repetitive approach to cross examination is a deliberate strategy to wear the jury down — to lull them into reasonable doubt by making Fitzgerald’s crisp narrative (Basically: “He lied. And he meant to lie.”) seem like a distant memory.

The strategy is working on reporters, at least. The long-winded explication of minor incidents (remember the great Buffalo News Mark Sommers controversy of 2004!?!), plus the warm room and the white noise machine that renders sidebar conversations inaudible has certainly seemed to heighten the suggestibility of some press commentators on the trial.

Hence the mainstream media’s uniformity of coverage regarding yesterday’s testimony. All together now: Isn’t it weird to see Tim Russert answering questions, instead of asking them? This was the main thrust of the stories in both the WP and NYT, as well as Forbes. At least when bloggers are being lazy, they get to stay in their pajamas.

But yesterday’s questioning also revealed a deeper and more subtle irony, one that, so far, has only been seized upon by bloggers: Tim Russert’s initial righteous refusal to submit to a grand jury subpoena about his conversations with Scooter Libby came after he had already talked quite freely with an FBI agent about that very conversation.

Russert’s defense for the change of heart (“Let me tell you about Scooter” vs. “I am a journalist and that is all you will get from me!”) cuts some very fine distinctions. First, Russert argued that the FBI agent asked only about his end of the conversation, based on information he had already gotten from Libby. By this logic, Russert was not revealing his source nor was he telling the FBI what information he got from the source. All of which makes sense — except when you recall Russert and NBC’s later motion to quash the subpoena claimed that Libby was a source, and that Russert would refuse to even acknowledge that the conversation took place, much less confirm his exact words in it.

The other straw Russert grasped has slightly more substance: He talked to the FBI agent because the agent’s questions were limited in scope. The initial grand jury subpoena, on the other hand, could have led to a “fishing expedition,” requiring Russert to admit to all sort of conversations with all sorts of officials. Ultimately, Russert did comply with the subpoena, after negotiating with the special counsel to also limit the scope of his questions.

I have no idea what the jury might make of Russert’s wriggliness. It may seem a straightforward case of hypocrisy — certainly, that’s what the defense would like the jury to think, a position that, oddly, puts the Libby defense team squarely on the side of the lefty blogosphere. Of course, Libby’s lawyers have different reasons for wanting to make Russert seem slimy.

For the lawyers, it just goes to the general atmosphere of mistrust of reporters they’d like to sow among the jury. For the lefty blogosphere, it’s part of their long-running feud against the mainstream media, proving yet again that Washington is one roving cocktail party where no one is serious about the news and personal relationships trump national interest, and, even more specifically, that Russert unnecessarily gummed up the wheels of justice, thus preventing Fitzgerald from moving more quickly to … to … I suppose get Libby on trial even earlier.

The media’s knee-jerk reaction to subpoenas probably doesn’t make sense to anyone whose livelihood is not wrapped up in the conventions of traditional journalism. Under those conventions, all threats to the First Amendment must be answered in a tone of high moral dudgeon. These proclamations look pompous and self-serving when deployed by the GE-owned broadcast network on the part of a well-paid talk show host — over a matter that has at its core shockingly petty yet potentially criminal behavior on the part of the Office of the Vice President. But remember, the no less jowly but exponentially sleazier Larry Flynt got to play a similar role, trying to protect subject matter less tragic but just as disgusting. The press doesn’t get to pick its martyrs — and those who really want the role are rarely the ones you want to see in it.