Goldilocks was right, and if she were a working journalist today, she'd agree with me that this week the Boston Globe handled a story with too much heat, the New York Times with too much ice, and that the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call got it just right.
The back story: In mid-November, the news pages of the Washington Times and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal excerpted 15 confidential memos written by Democratic Senate Judiciary staff aides. Given the memos' embarrassing subjects, one would think Senate Democrats would have protested quietly and returned to business. They dealt with how to Bork President Bush's judicial nominees, the need to postpone nomination hearings until after the 2002 elections, and the degree to which the Democrats were taking their marching orders from such interest groups as the NAACP, not to mention the language used to describe conservative nominees deserving of a filibuster ("nazis," according to the Washington Post).
Instead, the Democrats publicized their guileful backroom strategizing by demanding a sergeant-at-arms investigation of the leaks and accusing Republicans of pilfering the memos from a shared computer network. The Democrats got their investigation, which appears to have collared Republican staffers who exploited a computer server connection to peek at the Democrats' thinking.
That ends the back story and returns us to the journalism of the New York Times' Neil * A. Lewis and the Boston Globe's Charlie Savage. Yesterday, Jan. 22, Savage published a story, "Infiltration of Files Seen as Extensive: Senate Panel's GOP Staff Pried on Democrats," written with burning phosphorus. Even the hed screeches. I'm in no position to point the grammatical finger, but can you really treat an intransitive verb this way? One can pry. But can one "pry on" somebody? I suspect that the original hed accused GOP staffers of having "Spied" on Dems, and somebody nixed it as too strong and settled on this unique coinage.
Savage lights up his story with the language of scandal: Republican staffers "infiltrated opposition computer files for a year, monitoring secret strategy memos and periodically passing on copies to the media," and "the scope of both the intrusions and the likely disclosures is now known to have been far more extensive than the November incident." Continuing, Savage describes the GOP's acts as "surveillance," viewed by unnamed Democrats as "GOP dirty tricks" that could result in "ethics complaints to the Senate and the Washington Bar" or "criminal charges under computer intrusion laws." It sounds like Nixon's plumbers all over again. Yowza!
Over at the Times today, Lewis responds with a yawn (Page A-12 of the Washington edition). He cites the Globe story but covers the territory with half as many words with "Senate Inquiry Into Memos That Went Astray Nears End." On the You-Gotta-Read-This-Piece Excitometer, "Inquiry … Nears End" scores a negative 3. That approach continues in the story. Like Smokey the Bear, Lewis tamps down every ember until cold. His subtext: Stand by for the official findings.
My first inclination was to whistle a sour-grapes foul on Lewis and the Times for pooh-poohing a story they got beat on. But rummaging around in Nexis, I came to a different conclusion after reading Paul Kane's sober article from Tuesday in Roll Call ("Secret Service Called In; Probe of Judiciary Leak Could End in a Month"). Without setting himself on fire like Savage or swallowing liquid nitrogen like Lewis, Kane captures the story's essentials and places them in a finer context. In his Globe story, Savage isn't direct about how the Republican pilferers did what they are alleged to have done. But Kane sorts it out in a way that makes the criminal hacking allegations look a little silly.
An unnamed Republican source tells Kane that the memos were available to "a handful or more" staffers from both parties via the "My Network Places" icon on their computers. (Most Windows users can easily access My Network Places by clicking "Start" or by locating the icon on their desktops.) Once entering the My Network Places area, users can root around all sorts of unrestricted files stored on their local network's computers. Try this at work! You'll be astonished at what you find.
If the Democrats' files weren't password-protected—and I've yet to see anybody report that they were—it's hard to imagine that the Republican clicking his way to them committed a computer crime. Naughty and unethical, maybe, and maybe deserving of a Senate sanction. But the criminal outrage of the century by political dirty tricksters engaging in surveillance, no.
Byron York advanced this opinion and more last month in the Hill. He complains that the leaks inspired anger from the Times editorial page, which decried "partisan hacking" in early December but neglected to note the very newsworthy substance of the leaks. (Times reporter Lewis also neglects to mention the intriguing information contained in the leaks. In its coverage, the Washington Post has not shied from printing the info.) York writes, "One might expect most journalists—normally the recipients of leaks and protectors of leakers—to be more interested in what the documents say than in who leaked them."
I agree almost entirely with York. I wonder how the Globe would have covered the story had a Democratic staffer stumbled upon a stack of incendiary strategy memos by Republican staffers. If she shared them with her colleagues and then with the Globe, would the Globe have eagerly printed excerpts of them? You betcha. And would Republicans scream holy hell and demand an investigation after the Globe went to press? You betcha. And would the Globe and the Times be editorializing about the investigation's "chilling effect" on dissent and free speech? You betcha, again.
Clearly, whenever the Senate investigates itself, it's news. Likewise, the identity, motivations, and modus operandi of these leakers is news, too. But, like York, I can't help but think there's a journalistic double standard operating here in which partisan leaks to conservative journals and journalists (the Novak-Plame incident, for another example) are treated as capital crimes, but partisan leaks that wound Republicans are regarded the highest form of truth telling.
Thanks to reader David Roth who pointed me in the direction of the Globe and Times stories but probably won't like what I did here. Send your tips to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)