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Daily Howler: At long last, Fitzgerald expressed his view--and the press corps failed to report it
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AND WHY DIDN’T COHEN KNOW IT? At long last, Fitzgerald expressed his view—and the press corps failed to report it: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JUNE 26, 2007

EVERYTHING HE NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT WARMING SHE (SIC) LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN: We saw, too late, that our Brother Drum had issued a fatwa about that Post column. Emily Joffe’s piece on global warming was “literally so inane I’m speechless,” Drum wrote. “Can someone please give it the mockery it deserves?”

Mockery won’t be our argot today; we’ll speak the cool, clear language of reason. But we continued to think about Yoffe’s column after we posted yesterday’s HOWLER. We think it’s so bad—and so deeply instructive—that it does deserve second-day treatment.

Clueless along the Potomac: Writing on the Post’s op-ed page, Yoffe discussed global warming—a subject she seemed to know little about. Before proceeding, let’s make one thing clear—we’d love to see the Post flesh out various aspects of warming science. As we’ve said before, we’d love to see the Post examine the likelihood that rising temperatures will cause the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets to break off or melt, producing the rise in sea levels portrayed in Al Gore’s film. We’d like to see possible time frames discussed for this cataclysmic possible event. Beyond that, we’d love to see the Washington Post explore the most basic finding of the recent IPCC report—the finding that more than half of warming in the past fifty years has resulted from human activity. Questions: How much more than half of this warming has been caused by human activity? And what sorts of non-human causes have produced the rest of this warming?

These questions would occur to almost anyone—unless they work at the top of our press corps. For those people, a different thought obtains: Who in America is least qualified to comment on global warming science? And how can we get that person’s thoughts into a high-profile venue?

Looking for the world’s least qualified observer, the Post op-ed page found Yoffe. Her silly musings were fed to the public through yesterday’s op-ed column.

And make no mistake—Yoffe seems to be deeply clueless about basic warming science. Persistently, she offered a skeptical thought—perhaps current forecasts of warming are wrong. That is always possible, of course. But her efforts to flesh out her thought were routinely embarrassing:
YOFFE (6/25/07): Since I hate the heat, even I was alarmed by the recent headline: "NASA Warns of 110-Degrees for Atlanta, Chicago, DC in Summer." But I regained my cool when I realized the forecast was for close to the end of the century. Thanks to all the heat-mongering, it's supposed to be a sign I'm in denial because I refuse to trust a weather prediction for August 2080, when no one can offer me one for August 2008 (or 2007 for that matter).
We’ll guess that we don’t have to tell you how cosmically dumb that comment is. But Yoffe’s grasp of the science—of the basic logic of same—rarely surpassed this. At the Post, this somehow made her the perfect person to expostulate about this crucial topic.

Also lazy: But then, Yoffe didn’t confine herself to claims that warming projections may be wrong. She also lodged a more primal complaint: Al Gore has been scaring the children! Trashing Gore from her second paragraph on, Yoffe claimed that The Zealous One has been giving kids bad dreams. No major scientific skill is required to explore a claim like this. But even here, Yoffe was too lazy—and too g*dd*amn dumb—to go beyond efforts like this:
YOFFE: [A] recent New York Times profile of Gore tells that we are to be flooded with "An Inconvenient Truth." It is going to be shown in schools; book versions for children and young adults and a children's television show are planned. The global Live Earth concerts scheduled for July 7 are expected to raise millions, going to a three-year public relations effort, headed by Gore, to deluge us with bad news.
Really? An Inconvenient Truth will be shown “in schools?” But what kinds of schools will be showing the film? If the film is shown to seniors in high school, will that scare first-graders? And, if a version of Gore’s book is prepared for kids, will the book be too scary? Or will its contents be age-appropriate? Yoffe is too lazy to wonder or say, although these questions require little knowledge of science. The claim that kids are being scared is a claim she’s actually able to judge. But she’s too goddamn lazy—too disinterested; too empty—to make any real effort.

But so it goes in today’s high-end press corps. Gore has spent the last thirty years acquiring the knowledge of which she complains. Yoffe, by contrast, is too goddamn lazy to research the simplest complaints.

Class traitor: But as we noted in yesterday’s post, Yoffe shows skill in one key area; she’s skillful with the Gore-trashing imagery which has been in high demand at the Post. Her references to Gore are all sardonic or critical, and they litter her column, appearing in five different paragraphs in a 12-paragraph piece. “[E]xtinction might be preferable to the future Gore envisions,” she wittily says in her second graf. Soon, she’s discussing how Gore like to talk about Nazis, and she’s suggesting that Crazy Old Gore may not have his science straight. And of course, Al Gore has been scaring the children! How strange! In the past year, Gore has been honored around the world for his decades-long quest on this topic. But Yoffe can’t find one good word to say—and she churns a long string of derisions.

What can explain such an odd blend of themes? We don’t have the slightest idea. But make no mistake: In the upper regions of the Post, Al Gore is just a troubling class traitor; the paper has derided him, in endless inane ways, over the past several months. Magooistic instincts have seized the great journal, to the point where Outlook devoted a piece to the claim that Gore’s “untidy” new book lacks footnotes; somehow, the writer had failed to note the book’s twenty pages of end-notes. But as ludicrous as that offering was, the publication of Yoffe may have been even dumber. Could anyone in the fifty states be less qualified to speak on this topic? At today’s Post, sheer ignorance doesn’t matter—as long as the writer understands the language with which traitors to class interests are bashed. Truly, this seems to be the language this powdered newspaper now loves.

Strange messenger: Final point: How strange a messenger is Yoffe? Quite strange. Consider two angles.

First, how poorly qualified was Yoffe to discuss a scientific topic like warming? In this recent piece for Slate, Yoffe discussed her mathematical cluelessness. Hoping to keep pace with her daughter’s fourth grade math, Yoffe enrolled in a math prep course. Examined for her knowledge of math, she tested out at a low grade:
YOFFE (11/14/06): The placement test was to determine at what grade level my education would start...My instructor, Lopa Shah, sat down next to me with my results. The red pencil marks that covered it, indicating wrong answers, were a remembrance of things not passed. Flunking math tests was such a regular part of my childhood that I have lived the rest of my life trying to avoid anything numerical. (I wouldn't dream of doing my own taxes. I've never tried to balance my checkbook. I can barely make change.) There were 60 questions on this test, and I got 15 of them wrong, placing me at the 2A level. What grade was that? I asked Shah.

"That would be first grade," she said in a neutral tone. I was in first grade during the Kennedy administration. I admired Shah's restraint in not laughing at someone who had made no mathematical progress since then.
At first glance, Yoffe’s presentation doesn’t seem to make sense; for reasons we won’t elaborate, it’s hard to imagine a placement test in which only 15 errors (out of 60 questions) would place the test-taker at such a low level. But at any rate, Yoffe was recently telling the world that she can’t make change or balance a checkbook—and that she tests on first-grade level in math. Frankly, this may not be the perfect person to publish on the science of warming (and the clumsiness of her musings on warming suggests her weakness in math and logic). Would anyone but the powdered Post fail to see the problem here? Could anyone but our upper-end press corps publish this person on warming?

But Yoffe’s piece is odd for a second reason. As noted, she directs sardonic jibes at Gore from paragraph 2 right on to the end. This seems odd—for the following reason. On November 7, 2000 (Election Day), Slate ran an intriguing piece; its various writers told the world who they were voting for, and why. Yoffe thinks Gore is a kooky dope—now. But back then, she said she was voting for Gore because—well, here’s what she wrote:
YOFFE (11/7/00): [I’m voting for] Gore because: the environment, the economy, the courts, funding for family planning here and abroad, stem-cell research. George Bush is indifferent to so much of what the presidency entails: policy, politics, working hard. No matter how good his advisers, a president has to weigh their often competing advice and make his own judgment. Bush either is incapable of or uninterested in informing himself so that he can ask the right questions in order to make independent decisions. Al Gore has proved that he can.
Back then, Yoffe vote for Gore—and his work on the environment was Reason One! Today, the accuracy of Gore’s environmental work has never been clearer—and Yoffe shows up in the Washington Post, writing a piece which mocks his Nazi-bashing ways from its start right to its end.

What happened to Yoffe? We don’t have a clue. But the story here is the Washington Post, not Yoffe herself. Yesterday’s column was a groaning embarrassment—unless you’re part of a powdered elite whose leading goal is spreading the word about those damn class traitors. Global warming? The forecasts may be wrong! Gore himself? Let’s face it, he’s weird! Those messages ran all through Yoffe’s piece—and sure enough, it made perfect sense to the Post. Everything Fred Hiatt needs to know about warming, he can learn from a Gore-bashing scribe whose math skills tested out at first grade.

FOR THE RECORD: The scary headline Yoffe quoted (see above) didn’t appear in a mainstream press organ; it appeared at an obscure (to us) web site. Here’s an actual CBS story about that NASA report.

...AND WHY DIDN’T RICHARD COHEN KNOW IT: Richard Cohen seemed majorly clueless (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/25/07). All the way back on May 25, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had made an official filing in the Scooter Libby case. Legally, had Valerie Plame been “covert?” At long last, Fitzgerald offered his judgment on that long-debated question:
FITZGERALD (5/25/07): [I]t was clear from very early in the investigation that Ms. Wilson qualified under the relevant statute (Title 50, United States Code, Section 421) as a covert agent whose identity had been disclosed by public officials, including Mr. Libby, to the press.
Of course, Fitzgerald can be wrong in his reading of a statute. But he also filed an “Unclassified summary of Valerie Wilson’s CIA employment and cover history” which seemed to support and amplify his judgment. A few days later—still late in May—Fitzgerald’s filings became public knowledge (details below). A long debate had been fleshed out a bit. Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, had always believed that Plame was “covert” under terms of the relevant statute. The point had been hotly debated for years. Fitzgerald’s judgment had now become public.

But so what? Four weeks later, on June 19, the Post’s Richard Cohen staged in an on-line chat in which he made two striking statements. “I really don't think that anybody thought Valerie Plame fit” the legal definition of “covert,” he said. A bit later on, he flatly said this: “In fact she wasn’t covert.”

In fairness to Cohen, he seemed to mean that none of the leakers had thought that Plame was a “covert” agent. (He didn’t say why he held this view. At THE HOWLER, we have no idea what they thought.) But why would Cohen continue to say that Plame just flat-out wasn’t covert, even after Fitzgerald expressed his contrary judgment? Could it be that Cohen didn’t know about the gumshoe’s legal filings? Suspecting the answer might even be yes, we tasked a team of skillful analysts with the knotty conundrum.

We thought their findings were striking. On May 25, Fitzgerald made an important statement—he always believed that Plame was “covert” under terms of the statute, he said. But Fitzgerald’s statement was barely mentioned in the work of the mainstream press. Was Cohen still ignorant, four weeks later? Given the way these dandies work, it’s could really that he was.

How rarely did the mainstream press corps mention Fitzgerald’s important new filings? Citations were few and far between. The question had been debated for years. When Fitzgerald finally stated his view, the mainstream press didn’t care.

The Washington Post: Let’s start with Cohen’s own Washington Post. Yes, you could have learned a bit about Fitzgerald’s filing—if you waited two weeks, and read this piece, by reporter Carol Leonnig, inside the June 10 “Outlook” section. Two weeks after Fitzgerald’s filings, they were finally described in the Post—a bit. Leonnig discussed “five myths” about Libby’s trial. Here was Myth #1:
LEONNIG (6/10/07):

1. Valerie Plame wasn't a covert operative.

Wrong. She was.

Granted, this wasn't so clear at the start of Fitzgerald's grand jury investigation, so Libby's allies argued that the beans he spilled weren't that important to begin with. In fact, many of the officials who knew about her classified CIA status kept mum, which let Libby's pals jump to assert that she wasn't an undercover operative at the time of the leak.

But a CIA "unclassified summary" of Plame's career, released in court filings before Libby's June 5 sentencing, puts this one to rest: The CIA considered her covert at the time her identity was leaked to the media. The CIA report said that Plame had worked overseas in the previous five years and that the agency had been taking "affirmative measures" to conceal her CIA employment. That echoes the language used in the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it a crime to reveal the identities of covert CIA officers.
Even here, Leonnig failed to report Fitzgerald’s statement of his own view of the matter. (Instead, she accepted the CIA’s view of the case as if it just had to be accurate.) Meanwhile, the CIA report which Leonnig cited was, in fact, a little bit slippery; it implied that Plame “had worked overseas in the previous five years”, but didn’t literally say so. But readers of the Washington Post finally read a modest account of the Fitzgerald filings. But uh-oh! As far as we can tell, this is the only time the Post has ever discussed these filings. As far as we can tell, the Post has never reported, to this day, Fitzgerald’s statement about his own legal judgment. To this day, Post readers have never been told that Fitzgerald thought it was clear, right from the start, that Plame was a “covert” agent.

The New York Times: The New York Times was a bit more clear, but you had to read carefully there as well. On June 1, Adam Liptak included the following passage near the end of a page 18 report:
LIPTAK (6/1/07): On Friday [May 26], the special prosecutor in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, submitted an unclassified summary of Ms. Wilson's ''C.I.A. employment and cover history'' to the judge who will sentence Mr. Libby.

It was limited to the four years starting in 2002. In the summary, the agency said it chose to make information about Ms. Wilson's service public to aid Mr. Fitzgerald, but it did not say why it selected 2002 as its cutoff...

The summary said that Ms. Wilson was a covert C.I.A. employee at the time of Mr. Novak's disclosure. Between the beginning of 2002 and Ms. Wilson's resignation from the agency at the end of 2005, the summary said, she traveled overseas “under a cover identity, sometimes in true name and sometimes in alias” at least “seven times to more than 10 countries.”

The summary said that the C.I.A. did not acknowledge ''any other period of employment, if any, nor does it declassify the nature and details of Ms. Wilson's cover.''
Like Leonnig, Liptak didn’t report Fitzgerald’s statement of his own view about this matter. As best we can tell, this is the only place the Times ever discussed these filings. As far as we can tell, you have never heard about Fitzgerald’s statement of his own view if you rely on the Times or the Post.

Newsweek/Time: At Newsweek, Isikoff and Hosenball told the whole tale on May 29—on-line, not in the actual magazine. They included this passage, in which they described Fitzgerald’s statement of his own view:
ISIKOFF/HOSENBALL (6/29/07): “It was clear from very early in the investigation that Ms. Wilson qualified under the relevant statute”—the Intelligence Identities Act—“as a covert agent whose identity had been disclosed by public officials, including Mr. Libby, to the press,” Fitzgerald wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed late last Friday night.
Again, Fitzgerald’s judgment is subject to challenge. But his statement is an important new fact in this case. You could learn about it—if you read this on-line Newsweek account. As far as we can tell, nothing about this has ever been published in Time or Newsweek’s weekly editions.

The Associated Press: As far as we can tell, the AP has never reported the contents of Fitzgerald’s filings.

TV/cable/NPR: As far as we can tell, the contents of these filings has not been reported on CNN or on the Fox News Channel (whose pundits continue to say that Plame wasn’t covert).On MSNBC, you might have heard what Fitzgerald said—if you watched every show and listened to every word. For example, Isikoff made this brief report on the June 5 Hardball:
ISIKOFF (6/5/07): The whole case was muddy from beginning to end. I mean, nothing was clear-cut about it. The theories that partisans on both sides started with didn`t really pan out. When you—you know, the original theory of the critics on the left was that this was all one big White House conspiracy. That wasn`t exactly the case, especially when we disclosed that it was actually Richard Armitage at the State Department who was the original source for Robert Novak. So that kind of put a cloud in that picture.

On the other hand, there was plenty of evidence that people in the White House were involved. And the theory of people on the right that this was all much ado about nothing and that she wasn’t really even a covert agent, Valerie Plame Wilson, that was shot down by Patrick Fitzgerald pretty forcefully and the CIA just within the last week. They said, absolutely, she was a covert agent under the law, and she did travel overseas in an undercover capacity.
Chris Matthews excitably changed the subject, but at least the matter had been briefly “reported.” On June 18, David Shuster, guest-hosting on Tucker, offered this brief account:
SHIUSTER (6/18/07): The other argument that has been made repeatedly is some defenders of Scooter Libby say, oh, well, Valerie Plame, she was not covert. And yet in this latest round of documents, we find out that, yes, Valerie Wilson was covert. She was a covert agent. And what we also find out is that Patrick Fitzgerald never got enough of a look at the act of leaking information about a classified agent to make a judgment call about whether to charge somebody with that.
We can find no sign that this matter has ever been discussed on NPR, or on any broadcast network. We can find no sign that it has ever been cited on Countdown.

How strange is America’s public discourse? For years, people argued about the question: Was Valerie Plame a “covert” agent under terms of the IIPA? Late in May, Fitzgerald finally stated his view; he said it was clear, from the start, that she was covert. But he might have well have said this on Mars for all the coverage it received. On June 19, Richard Cohen conducted an on-line chat—and he still was saying, flat-out, that Plame hadn’t been covert.

What didn’t Richard Cohen know? And why didn’t Richard Cohen know it? It’s quite possible that Cohen didn’t know what Fitzgerald said about Plame. Like you, he lives in a very strange world, a world where facts are more likely to be ignored than to be reported.

TOMORROW—REPORTING RUDY: What didn’t the New York Times know? And when didn’t the New York Times know it?