The Digital Journalist
The Libby Trial:
Another Country
March 2007

by Ron Steinman

Not exactly a Stalin show trial.
Not exactly the Scopes trial.
Not exactly John Gotti on trial.
Not exactly the Chicago Seven.
Not exactly Nuremberg.

What we call The Libby Trial is revealing for what it says and does not say about journalism and Washington, D.C. If this trial is so important, then why is it so dull and equally arcane to anyone but an insider? If this trial is so important, why does it get the silent treatment in most of America? According to the Pew Research Center "the Libby trial was the top story for just 1% for the last two weeks in January." With the journalism star power that followed in February, I am sure the rating went up, but I cannot see it going very high.

How the trial and how journalists and government witnesses appear without the facade of their employers to protect them may offer object lessons for those who make their living off news. One immediate observation is how bad everyone's - journalists' and government officials', meaning everyone involved except the attorneys' -- memories are concerning past events. It is striking how all those trained minds have had difficulty recalling events, even when they supposedly committed them to paper. How they put down the facts - dubious by the way - is also at issue.

It is worth noting, as we well know, that symbiosis dominates news in Washington as it does in other capitals. Journalists feed the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy feeds journalists. Bureaucrats, though, run Washington as they try to run everything else in the world. Each hand that has a hand in power feeds yet another hand, and so on and so forth. This creates a sort of journalistic fundamentalism that flourishes in Washington among reporters and editors who hardly ever do anything unusual in reporting the news. Safe and conservative is best, no matter the source, no matter the organization. When someone wanders off the land, reign in him or her before the whole flock gets out of hand. One stray can wreck the stasis of the pack. The public sees this and knows it to be true. The public knows it can do little to change things. Thus the growth of bloggers, most of whom are not professional, but nonetheless work mightily to have a say about our system of journalism and government and how each works. Is it any wonder people look askance at journalists? Is this one of the reasons the Libby Trial is a bore?

I did two tours in Washington for NBC News. Over the years, I had many assignments in the District, and visited the District a minimum of 100 times. The Beltway grew over the years from a staid country road that surrounded the nation's capital to a massive set of handcuffs that strangles everything it encloses. There is no physical, psychological, moral or spiritual escape from the Beltway once it gets you in its grip. Before the birth of reality TV, the Beltway was the source of its own special reality every day, a reality like no other anywhere. Few believed what really happened inside the Beltway then, and today, it is worse. The idea of the Beltway as a governing concept is self-defeating. The Beltway encloses a land that is foreign to most Americans except those who live and work there. It is an enclave in America, but I sometimes consider it a Third World country with its own unfathomable culture. We cannot assume that those who live and work there in jobs other than journalism and government know how people think in that man-made, city-state by the Potomac.

As I watched the Libby Trial unfold and as I watched witness after witness fumble to find his or her memory, I came to the conclusion that news organizations should start treating the land inside the Beltway as a foreign country. All reporters should attend language school. All reporters should be embedded at the White House, State Department, Justice, and the Supreme Court. As an embed, he or she should have a short stay in each of the agencies they will cover. But an embedded reporter should rotate from job to job and never stay in one location for long. Importantly, no journalist should stay inside the Beltway for more than two years. As an inducement to serve in Washington, there should be hazard pay similar to what some news organizations pay their staff in a war zone. The only difference is that a war zone is where people die, and where a reporter may see bullets whizzing over his or her head instead of usually incomprehensible words to decipher incomprehensible acts of government.

I do not accept that longevity in a Washington assignment guarantees access. The current system of reporters sometimes staying for 40 years does not mean that someone in Washington only for a short time has less chance of coming up with more and even better information. Fame can come with longevity. Fame is important to some as a measure of success in journalism. Though dubious and short-lived, fame can produce a book or two that often ends up nearly dead on a remainder table in a sidestreet, 99-cent store. Fame can mean TV appearances. Fame can mean big bucks for speeches. Fame, too, often gets in the way of solid journalism.

I believe that frequent change inside the Beltway might help destroy the evil of entrenchment, a disease faced by long-term journalists who stay in one place too long. I am for parachuting neophyte reporters inside the Beltway. This might produce a new and interesting take on how the various tribes live, and more to the point, how they survive in the mostly monotonous atmosphere inside the Beltway. Keep in mind it is to the advantage of the journalists who work in the district to foster the idea of another country, though most will never admit it.

There you have it. Term limits for journalists in the District of Columbia, the land inside the Beltway where as I write very little that anyone does connects to the real world outside.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.