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It’s not about sex.
No, no, it really isn’t about sex this time. No one has even suggested that Charles Bakaly, former deputy to Independent Council Kenneth Starr, had sexual relations with New York Times reporter Don Van Natta Jr. The accusation is that Bakaly leaked a story to Van Natta back in January 1999. Other than that small difference, though, the parallels are pretty tasty. Bakaly was—according to informed sources—a promiscuous leaker who just got caught this time. As with Starr’s main target, there is speculation whether he was hoodwinking the boss or had an “understanding.” And Bakaly is in legal trouble not for the initial sin but for lying about it in the subsequent investigation. His trial starts Thursday.
Oddly, Bakaly’s defenders seem unable on this occasion to keep the original behavior and the subsequent denials distinct in their minds. Because they feel there was nothing wrong with the leaking (and indeed a circuit court panel held as much last September), they feel it is unfair to punish Bakaly for the attempted cover-up. The purity of obstruction of justice—the principle that it is wrong to give false answers in the criminal justice system, even to questions that never should have been asked—no longer beguiles them. Don’t try to tell them it’s not about leaks, it’s about lying. They don’t buy it. This time.
The New York Times, at least, is consistent. It opposed the impeachment of President Clinton, and it opposes the prosecution of Charles Bakaly (in which the Times itself plays the role of Monica). “Ill-considered,” thundered the Times editorial page July 8. “A regrettable denouement,” it roared. Actually, that’s more like a meow than a roar, isn’t it? But then the whole world of leaks puts news media in a comically difficult position.
A friend of mine defends dishonest adulterous politicians on the grounds that a) adultery should not be a public issue; b) lying is inherent to adultery; therefore c) lying about adultery should not be a public issue. Something similar might be said in defense of dishonest talkative public officials: a) leaking serves the public interest; b) lying is essential to leaking; and therefore c) lying about leaking serves the public interest. This might be said, but never is said because it is too embarrassing. How can professional truth-tellers defend lying? So instead we deny Step b: that leaking and lying are inseparable.
The New York Times story that led to the Bakaly prosecution reported that “several associates of Mr. Starr” had said that Starr believed he had constitutional authority to indict a sitting president. As the story ran on, these unnamed associates chatted away about sundry implications of this factoid. But not Charles Bakaly! “Charles G. Bakaly 3d, the spokesman for Mr. Starr, declined to discuss the matter. ‘We will not discuss the plans of this office or the plans of the grand jury in any way, shape or form,’ he said.” Thus the Times not only allowed Bakaly to tell what the reporter knew to be a lie in its pages, but it told a knowing lie itself. Bakaly did not “decline to discuss the matter.”
Unless Bakaly actually wasn’t the leaker, as he still maintains. This is pretty unlikely, unless Starr—who defended him for a while, then fired him after a supposed investigation—is a total dastard. But suppose Bakaly actually did not have leakual relations with that newspaper. In that case the Times has been reporting on the criminal prosecution of a man it knows to be innocent, while failing to report that rather pertinent bit of information.
The media also tend to be disingenuous, at least, about the general function of leaks. In this case, whether or not Bakaly was the leaker, and whether or not Starr was in on the plot, it was a strategic leak, intended to unnerve the Clinton forces during the impeachment proceedings. Most leaks are like this: not courageous acts of dissent from the organization, but part of the organization’s game plan.
And thus leaks often suck the media into a conspiracy of hype. Was the fact that Starr thought a sitting president could be indicted really so new, so important, so surprising? (He never actually tried it, so intentionally or not, the leak turned out to be misleading.) In what the Times may have regarded as a somewhat backhanded defense of its scoop, the Washington Post editorialized that “this information was not really even news at all.” The Times itself took the opposite approach, declaring that the story “was obviously of great national moment.” Too small to matter? Too big to stop? Each is a plausible defense, but both can’t be true.
The point here is not to pick on the Times. (Is that true? Sources inside my head, who spoke on the condition they not be identified, say it’s hard to tell.) Let’s say the point is that even the New York Times has leak fever. Its editorial last week, just after declaring that the Starr story was “of great national moment,” suddenly pooh-poohed this historic scoop as merely “discussions Mr. Starr and his aides may have had with reporters about [their] deliberations.” May have had? The story was what anonymous Starr aides had told the Times about their deliberations! In its pious agnosticism regarding matters it must know the truth about, the Times seems to be raising the possibility that it made the whole thing up.
Now that I wouldn’t believe. Even if it said so in the New York Times.
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