Holiday-Week Journalism

All the news that’s fit to pad.

’Tis the season to be jolly. Also to avoid contact with your editor, if you happen to be a newspaper reporter. This is a shame, because after a mad pre-Christmas rush, many subscribers find that during the holiday week itself they have more idle time than usual to linger over their daily newspaper. But in an unfortunate mismatch between supply and demand, this is always the very week during which newspapers have the hardest time filling their columns with anything even vaguely worth publishing.

Case in point: A story in the Dec. 24 New York Times headlined “New England Is Celebrating Season Filled With Snow.” To be fair, this story isn’t quite so dog-bites-man as it sounds, because the gist is that ski resorts are enjoying their best December season in five years. Even so, I question whether the opening of all Vermont ski resorts prior to New Year’s Day is “unprecedented,” as a representative of that state’s ski areas association maintains. The desk editor who ordinarily might be counted on to highlight this quote and annotate, “R U sure???” must be taking the week off. And I withold points for originality from Butch Roberts, a forecaster for the National Weather Service, who informs the Times that the presence of 20 inches of snow above normal for this time of year in Maine and Northern New Hampshire “makes everybody happy who wants to participate in winter sports.” Still, let’s be thankful that the Times kept this snoozer off Page One, where it would have enjoyed little competition.

At the Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, recent staff cuts left sufficient manpower in place to publish at least one piece of actual news on Dec. 24: An account of the Central Intelligence Agency tapes scandal from the point of view of former CIA director Porter Goss, on whose watch the erasure occurred. A confidential source alternatively described as “an official involved in the discussions” and “a former senior CIA official familiar with the discussions on the tapes” is almost certainly Goss himself. According to the story, Goss said at a meeting in 2004, “Getting rid of tapes in Washington is an extremely bad idea.” Goss was therefore “stunned” when Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., who headed the Company’s clandestine service, told him in Nov. 2005 that he’d destroyed the tapes. Yet Goss didn’t reprimand or fire Rodriguez, according to the story, because he’d already been bloodied in bureaucratic battles with the clandestine service: “There would have been another blood-letting in the press.” But the story notes in passing that Rodriguez was Goss’ own hire, which points to another possible motive: Goss didn’t want to concede that he’d erred in promoting Rodriguez to the post. The simplest and most plausible motive of all is that firing Rodriguez would have risked revealing the action for which Rodriguez was fired, which was probably illegal and, at the very least, highly controversial. Even if Goss had himself chosen to reveal why Rodriguez had gotten fired, he, Goss, likely would have received some blame for the tapes’ destruction. And since (the Times reports) Rodriguez never was given a direct order from Goss not to destroy the tapes, Goss would have richly deserved such blame. The L.A Times does Goss the great favor of not mentioning this last and most likely motive (Merry Christmas!), which is yet another reason to suspect Goss was a source.