If you're a journalist, and a very senior White House official calls you up on the phone, what do you do? Do you try to get the official to address issues of urgent concern so that you can then relate that information to the public?
Not if you're NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert.
When then-vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby called Russert on July 10, 2003, to complain that his name was being unfairly bandied about by MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Russert apparently asked him nothing.
And get this: According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.
That's not reporting, that's enabling.
That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable.
Indeed. I'll be generous and say that as much as we're all horrified by the generally "we're all friends" attitude of the media and the rest of official Washington, I'll acknowledge that some of this is inevitable and I don't think journalists should always be playing "gotcha." But we're not talking about assuming stuff is off the record at social events, or something, we're talking about assuming stuff is off the record, by default, even when it's clear that Russert is in his role as a journalist.
Journalism ceases to be about bringing truth to the public and becomes official court stenography. Russert only reports what people agree to let him report.
More than that, even when reality contradicts what they tell him he doesn't feel that this unburdens him of any confidentiality obligations.
By essentially running administration press releases through a guy like Russert, they launders the information and give it the stamp of Truth from a news guy that people inexplicably trust.
Something is broken.