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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Slow down.

Part of me can't help but appreciate the irony of a White House which took the country to war on shaky (and later discredited) evidence going to war against a news organization that published a short article on shaky evidence.

But set that aside.

I haven't followed every particular about the case of this blow-up over the article in Newsweek. But I do see a clear pattern -- a White House trying to decapitate another news organization.

The parallels with CBS are obvious. And yet, the production of the Rather/National Guard piece ended up containing egregious errors. On top of that, CBS dug in its heels for days even after manifest errors in the reporting had become obvious. CBS brought the Rather-gate avalanche down upon itself with some very sloppy journalism. But the White House quickly saw the opportunity and grabbed it, effectively taming an entire news organization.

What already seems to be happening here is that the White House is trying to replicate the pattern, even in a case with a quite different set of facts.

Here we have a case where two reporters authored a story which seems not to have been as solidly-sourced as the reporters and editors apparently thought. The story quickly provoked a strong denial from the Pentagon. The news organization went back to its sources and found a key source second-guessing his original assertion. Newsweek first cast doubt on the story and then, this afternoon, retracted it entirely.

Newsweek thought the central claim had been confirmed. The Pentagon said these claims have been investigated and not found credible. And Newsweek now says it can't stand behind the story.

Here's a newsflash: reporters make mistakes. It happens every day in newspapers around the country. When a country has an aggressive, free press, it is inevitable that reporters will sometimes get stories wrong. Indeed, I think I could rattle off dozens in the last year alone in which the poor practices on the part of the journalists seem to have been more blameworthy than is the case here.

When news organizations make errors, they have to correct the story as quickly as possible. Believe me, every honest journalist lives in fear of getting a story wrong. And when a mistake gets made, even in good faith, it puts a dent in the journalist's reputation.

If it turns out that the reporter was dishonest or acted recklessly or simply didn't perform as a professional journalist should, then there are more immediate consequences. That can include demotion, firing or even being drummed out of the profession entirely.

Perhaps something like that will prove to be the case here; so far, though, I haven't seen it.

What I do see is a pattern of a White House focusing in on particular instances of vulnerable reporting and exploiting them to set new de facto rules for the national political press.

Here we have today Scott McClellan, the president's press secretary, specifically demanding further disavowals of the story from Newsweek. That should trouble anyone. The White House is not a party at interest here. Perhaps the people who have been falsely accused are. Perhaps the Pentagon could demand an apology if the story turns out to be false. Or the Army. Not the White House. They are only involved here in as much as the story is bad for them politically.

We are already seeing a wave of violence, at least some of which preceded the publication of this article, being blamed on the reporters in question here. That is a vivid reminder of the responsibility all journalists have to get stories right. At the end of the day, though, the responsibility for the deaths of those who were killed rests with those who killed them, nowhere else.

(As Andrew Sullivan rightly notes, in terms of severity it is actually not that easy to distinguish between this alleged conduct and lots of stuff we know for a fact did happen at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and other places.)

At the risk of stating the obvious, I'm not justifying the work behind this story. I have no particular brief for Mike Isikoff or Newsweek. Indeed, it's not clear to me precisely what happened at all. What I am saying is that occasional errors are inevitable with a truly free press. The price paid by the news organization and the individual journalist should be based on whether and how well they followed established journalistic practices -- not on how much the White House went after them. If the new standard is that every material fact reported must be attested to on the record then in the future we'll know only a tiny fraction of what we do now about the internal workings of our government.

What I see here is an effort by the White House to set an entirely different standard when it comes to reportage that in any way reflects critically on the White House.

That's dangerous and it should be recognized as such.

It seems that "nuclear option" has become such an effective Democratic slur that congressional Republicans just can't help saying it themselves. In fact, the GOP leadership on the Hill has to send out specific instructions to their members to stop using the phrase.

In this talking points memo, circulated today by the Republican leadership in the House, #1 of the "Top Five Message Points" is "1. Do not refer to the "nuclear option" -- it should be called the constitutional option."

You can see the document here.

Like many of you, for months I've heard President Bush and Vice President Cheney talk up 'Asbestos Reform' as one of the main planks of their legislative agenda. I didn't know just what they meant by that or what the issue even was (that is, beyond the fact that exposure to asbestos obviously causes all sorts of deadly and chronic ailments). But given who was pushing it, I figured it couldn't be anything good.

Over the last week, I've taken an initial look at the question. I haven't had as much time as I've wanted to dig into it. But the pretty clear initial impression I've gotten is that, while the overall concept may be a good one (setting up a trust fund to compensate victims of absestos exposure), the actual piece of legislation (S.852) moving down the pike amounts to a huge giveaway to a couple dozen big companies who will see their annual payouts to sufferers from asbestos exposure fall to just a fraction of what they are now.

Let me be crystal clear about one thing: trial lawyers would totally take it on the chin with this bill. (In fact, I think that's one reason the White House and the Republicans are pushing it -- as a way to defund Democrats.) But just because trial lawyers have self-interested reasons to oppose it doesn't mean it's not also a bad bill. And a pretty persuasive case has been made to me that the bigger effect of this legislation is to radically reduce the financial liability of a few big companies -- who in the past were the worst bad-actors with asbestos -- and make it a lot harder for people sick or dying of various asbestos-related ailments to be compensated or get cash settlements to pay for medical treatment.

I know there's been a lot of equivocation in this post. And that's because I don't like to talk about a topic or piece of legislation until I feel like I really have a handle on it. So in this case, I'll just say that my first impression is that this is a bad bill. And I'd suggest people look more into it. Here's a report from Public Citizen that's a good place to start.

I'd be very curious to hear your views, for or against.

I'll be out for most of the morning at the Personal Democracy Forum conference here in New York. I'll be presenting at 11:30 AM panel 'Using the Net to Move Your Issues'.

Later today we'll be bringing you more news about the soon-to-be-launched TPMCafe.com.

And, for your reading pleasure, here's a piece I was working on earlier this year, a review of David McCullough's new book 1776. It's out this morning in the new issue of The New Yorker.

Third try's the charm? With 'nuclear option' up in a mushroom cloud, and 'constitutional option' down the memory hole, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky this morning introduced "Byrd Option" as the new GOP-approved word for abolishing the filibuster.

Reporters should be getting their notices shortly.

Late Update: See the video of McConnell in action trying out "Byrd Option".

Over at the TPM Bankruptcy Bill blog, Prof. Elizabeth Warren is putting out a call for questions that should be put to credit card industry executives (among others) when they appear before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday. Take a look at what she has to say.

Down for the Count?

Here's a story that deserves a bit more attention but hasn't, to the best of my knowledge, gotten much play outside Indiana.

Republicans have gone to great lengths to protect Rep. Chris "The Count" Chocola (R) of Indiana from any fall out over his support for partially phasing out Social Security.

Actually, they've put almost as much effort into running cover for Chocola over his history of flip-flopping on the issue since in 2000 he said he was for complete phase-out, followed by a 2002 stance against phase-out, and a current stance in favor of partial phase-out.

But I digress.

Social Security has become a hot issue in Chocola's district -- occasioning even a visit from President Bush a couple months ago. And back on Monday, Rev. Lisa Doege of South Bend's First Unitarian Church was planning to hold a program on the topic of Social Security at the church, which included Notre Dame Professor Teresa Ghilarducci, a pension policy expert who President Clinton appointed to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation's advisory board and Indiana Governor O'Bannon appointed to serve on the Board of Trustees of the State of Indiana Public Employees Pension Board.

But Monday afternoon Doege got a call from State Representative Luke Messer, the executive director of the Indiana Republican party, who warned her that her church's program on Social Security might cost the church its tax-exempt status.

According to this AP article, Messer based his claim on his understanding "that Ghilarducci was active in Democratic politics and contributed to the campaign of Joe Donnelly, who ran against Republican Rep. Chris Chocola in last year's election." The information had come from Chris Faulkner, Chairman of the St. Joseph County GOP.

Messer, as expected, says no threat was intended. The call was purely informational. And apparently he wanted a pro-privatization speaker included in the program.

But I think the nature of the interchange -- a state party chairman warning a minister that her church might lose its tax-exempt status if she didn't include his phase-out-enthusiast in a program her Church was holding on Social Security -- speaks for itself.

Also, to the best of my knowledge, Rep. Chocola has made no public comment about whether he believes Messer's actions were appropriate.

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