Ethics Corner: Time for Russert to 'Meet the Press'

By: Allan Wolper It's time for Tim Russert to meet the press. It's time for the host of NBC's long-running, Sunday morning interview program to stop hiding behind his bosses and start talking. It's time for him to answer questions about his secret testimony, delivered under oath in the Valerie Plame CIA-leak case.

It's long past time for Russert to explain why he testified last August and then remained a high-profile member of an organization founded 35 years ago to keep reporters away from subpoena-toting prosecutors. That organization, The Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press, is a leader in the legal fight to stop special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's crusade to catch The CIA Leaker and jail any reporter who resists him.

Russert's secret testimony has become a quiet embarrassment to the members of the Reporters Committee, whose members have until now kept their opinions to themselves. Russert's willingness to answer Fitzgerald's questions is astounding because he is a member of the RCFP steering committee along with Earl Caldwell, the former New York Times reporter whose refusal to obey a Nixon Administration subpoena was the motivating force behind the committee's formation.

"I was stunned when I found out that Russert testified," said Caldwell, now an endowed professor at The Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communication at Hampton University in Virginia. "A guy like Tim Russert, he should know better. But he didn't come out of journalism, he comes out of politics. Maybe he sees things another way."

But whatever Russert's early training, Jack Nelson, one of the founders of The Reporters Committee, saw his testimony as an affront to the mission of the organization. "It was sort of outrageous that he would meet secretly with the prosecutor," said Nelson, the former Washington chief of the Los Angeles Times. "He should be transparent. There is no gag rule. He can tell the public what he said in there."

Russert knows that he needs to explain himself. At a Washington, D.C., dinner in March, he sought out Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee, to do just that. "He told me he didn't feel comfortable testifying," Dalglish told me during a recent telephone interview. "He said that the prosecutor just wanted to know what he told 'Scooter' Libby in their conversation."

According to Dalglish, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, apparently discussed with Russert Robert Novak's July 2003 column that outed CIA agent Valerie Plame. "Tim said Fitzgerald wanted to know what he said to Libby," she said. "And Tim told him."

Libby had been widely speculated as one of sources on the Plame disclosure for at least four reporters involved in the case: Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, Matt Cooper of Time magazine, and Russert. That quartet agreed to testify after Libby signed a waiver releasing them from a confidentiality agreement. Cooper has since been subpoenaed again, but this time is refusing to testify, prompting a judge to hold him in contempt.

The four reporters have all issued statements claiming they gave limited testimony, but have refused to explain just how limited their answers were. Instead they have complained that Novak, the columnist who broke the CIA story, refuses to reveal whether he was even subpoenaed. It's a valid criticism, but one that doesn't excuse their willingness to testify.

David Kidwell, a Miami Herald reporter who was once jailed to avoid testifying before a grand jury, said the four reporters compromised all journalists by testifying. "When reporters cut deals, when they rationalize themselves by testifying, they are acting as a government snitch," he said. "We are supposed to be policing the government, not allowing ourselves to be co-opted by it." He said the case also confuses the public: "What is a judge to think when Russert and the others have said that principles are not that important?"

What does Russert say about that? He is standing behind his corporate leaders, who issued a statement through Barbara Levin, communications director for NBC News, that read, in part: "Tim Russert is a stalwart supporter of the right to gather news, unfettered by government interference or inquiries."


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