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A Lie or Terrifying Negligence: Why Won't Journalists Demand an Answer?

A truly extraordinary example of journalistic malfeasance is playing out right now. Attorney General Michael Mukasey told a San Francisco audience last week that the Bush administration was aware in the days before the 9/11 attacks that an Al Qaeda official was making calls from a “safe house in Afghanistan” to U.S. but that our government failed to act on that.

Mukasey said the U.S. lacked the legal authority, a flat falsehood as legal commentators have pointed out. But why aren’t journalists pursing what Salon’s Glenn Greenwald explains is a huge question:

Mukasey’s story is either true or false — and, more importantly, nothing like it happened. He can’t claim that he just misspoke or was confused because not only was there no such call from Afghanistan (at least according to everything that is known, including by the 9/11 Commission’s version), but FISA could never possibly have prevented interception of any calls remotely like the one Mukasey described.

He just made this up out of whole cloth in order to mislead Americans into supporting the administration’s efforts to eliminate spying safeguards and basic constitutional liberties and to stifle the pending surveillance lawsuits against telecoms. That isn’t hard for anyone — even including those who play the role of journalists on TV — to understand and convey.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s article about the speech at least raised the issue:

Mukasey did not specify the call to which he referred. He also did not explain why the government, if it knew of telephone calls from suspected foreign terrorists, hadn’t sought a wiretapping warrant from a court established by Congress to authorize terrorist surveillance, or hadn’t monitored all such calls without a warrant for 72 hours as allowed by law. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for more information.

As far as I can tell, however, the paper hasn’t pursued it further. That’s bad journalism if so.

It’s vastly vastly worse journalism that virtually the entire media establishment has failed to pick up on a story of real significance. Why are journalists not hounding the Justice Department, White House and Congress for answers? (The failure of Congress to ask obvious questions is nothing new for that weak-kneed crowd, sadly. And it’s scary that the presidential candidates don’t care, either.)

Who’s asking, besides MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann? Bloggers, for the most part. Oh, right, blogging is just a trivial activity, unworthy of journalistic recognition.

This kind of thing is why traditional journalism is forfeiting its soul.

28 Comments on “A Lie or Terrifying Negligence: Why Won't Journalists Demand an Answer?”

  1. #1 buzz
    on Apr 3rd, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Traditional journalism, forfeiting its soul (Gillmor)…

    Το ψέμα του Mukasey κι η οκνηρία των παραδοσιακών μέσων….

  2. #2 Seth Finkelstein
    on Apr 3rd, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Partially because the right-wing noise machine (including certain high-attention bloggers) would scream LIBERAL MEDIA BIAS!!! at them …

    It’s really easy for people to rant behind a keyboard when they have nothing to lose. It’s much harder when facing a pack of liars and smear-artists (who, by the way, work very extensively with some of the blogging-is-the-Revolution crowd).

  3. #3 Dan
    on Apr 3rd, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    Hi Dan. Good post, good points. There are other pointed questions we could be asking as well.

  4. #4 Denis Robert
    on Apr 3rd, 2008 at 4:02 pm


    Please spare me the pajama wearing blogger tripe. The time when bloggers, especially the most prominent ones, “have nothing to lose”, is gone. Those on the left, in particular, are mostly professionals, making their living through their blogging. Some on the right are “kept”, but that’s par for the course. But Greenwald is certainly not kept; he is as professional a blogger as you can get in the business.

    Whether the right would scream or not does not change the media’s responsibility. They should pursue the truth, whatever the consequence. The real problem is not really that the right wing noise machine starts screaming, but rather that the media owners do… That’s the real problem here.

  5. #5 Rosencrantz
    on Apr 3rd, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    The media doesn’t ask these questions because they’ve painted themselves into a corner. They are like the character in a terrible commedy who lies and then has to lie some more to cover up the earlier lies. Eventually they spiral out of control as their lies inevitable unravel.

    The media is no different. If they were to question Mukasey on this discrepancy, then they would have to admit that FISA already works the way it should. But if they admit this, then people would start wondering why the media has been blindly reporting the Bush line about why he ignored FISA for his wiretapping. Suddenly the media’s 7 year string of incompetance starts to unravel. Why didn’t they report FISA when it was relevant? If FISA worked, then clearly it wasn’t necessary to torture. If it wasn’t necessary to torture, then why were all these people arrested in the first place without charges? Why did we need to go into Iraq?

    The media has been hiding the truth/facts for years. They are at the point NOW where reporting the facts would only expose their previous bad behaviour. And if that happens, then the whole house of cards crumbles.

    No. Instead they will wait for the dems to make a stink about this and report it as yet another he-said-she-said story about angry dems and partisan bickering over nothing.

  6. #6 Paul Wilden
    on Apr 3rd, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    When something from the “left” offends the sensibilities of our political class like the angry words of a certain pastor, the media is all over it. But should anything of any “real significance” be pointed out like the Downing Street memos or the nation’s leading law enforcer potentially lying through his teeth, then hardly a peep is heard.

    So much for the “liberal media.”

  7. #7 Reilly
    on Apr 3rd, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Seth Finkelstein says:”It’s really easy for people to rant behind a keyboard when they have nothing to lose.”
    Bloggers raising the legimate issue of why the media is failing to conduct a serious inquiry into the AG’s remarks (as well as bloggers themselves advancing the inquiry through whatever means possible, from contacting other officials for comment to pressure techniqes) could only be identified as “ranting” by someone intent on diminishing those efforts, or the influence of the blogophere in general.
    And the insinuation of the phrase “behind a keyboard” – a standard with the anti-blogging crowd – always makes me laugh. As if the mechanics of the medium were an indictment of the practitioners’ courage. How else would one write for the internet except “behind a keyboard”?
    I suggest next time you go out to dinner you call out the chef for cooking “behind a stove”.
    On a broader point though, do you really think the possibility that the media might invite some anger and harsh words from certain quarters should exempt them from doing their jobs? If so, then I guess you don’t mind them actually, and quietly, hiding “behind (their unused) keyboards”, not because “they have nothing to lose” but because they have nothing that they are willing to lose.

  8. #8 Nathan
    on Apr 3rd, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    I’ve given up entirely on mainstream media. I’m sick of finding story after story on the blogs that the MSM has been hiding from me, yet they’ll waste hours with idle gossip that is only fit for rags. Events such as these – a deliberate lie by the Attorney General of the United States regarding FISA, no matter whether the story of the call from Afghanistan is true or not – should have been sung from the rooftops by the MSM. However there’s barely a whisper. It’s not even worth trying to save MSM; it is corrupt right to its core. Flush it all away and bring on the blogs. I trust blogs more than I trust MSM.

  9. #9 Brian Keith O'Hara
    on Apr 3rd, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    To the names of Helen Thomas, Michael Ware, Admiral Fallon and General Shinseki must be added the name, Glenn Greenwald. Not another talking head, someone who asks questions that people in power don’t want to answer.
    Just when I had almost given up hope, it appears that the legacy of Edward R. Murrow lives on…
    I want Mukasey under oath and then Carl Rove(Bob Riley’s stolen Alabama Governor’s election of 2002(from Democratic Governor Don Siegelman 6,000 votes disappeared in Baldwin County Alabama during an illegal and US Attorney Leura Canary’s frame-up Don in 2006). Whether we get perjury trials or the truth matters little to me.
    But the truth needs to matter again.

  10. #10 Karl
    on Apr 4th, 2008 at 3:46 am


    You attack old media and point to two examples of old media (Greenwald is now an employee of Salon – the post you link to is from Salon which – according to the many in digeratti, is forgotten along with Slashdot, and never gets the credit it deserves).

    Seth falls for it by attacking bloggers as somehow different then paid journalists.

    Not as much as people think.

    The failure is complete. Both traditional media *and* the blogosphere aren’t doing their part.

    If there is a robust discussion about this in the blogosphere, that is reaching outside of its niche of interest (unfortunately, news travels well in niches, and I bet you will find this in a great group of liberal bloggers, but not discussed elsewhere) than it is news to me.

    Attempting to draw lines between old media and new is….


  11. #11 Karl
    on Apr 4th, 2008 at 4:02 am

    There is a hope that if the liberal blogosphere speaks up loud enough, as it has in the past, the mainstream media might pick it up.

    THEN ‘the media’ as you are defining it will tune in. Then average folks awareness of this might be piqued.

    But I seriously doubt you are going to see a pre-emptive cross-niche discussion about this on tech blogs, celebrity blogs, sports blogs and even conservative blogs – unless forced by momentum.

  12. #12 Karl
    on Apr 4th, 2008 at 5:04 am

    Indeed Paul. The idea of a liberal media is a myth. And the existence of cross surfacing of real news across niches in the blogosphere is a myth as well. Each niche sticking to the news factoids that solidify pre-existing view points of their audiences. Every once and a while a niche community breaks something through and it has amazed me that the Downing Street memos were an item that did not.

  13. #13 Seth Finkelstein
    on Apr 4th, 2008 at 5:51 am

    Karl: But the fact is that bloggers (meaning, sigh, people who don’t make their living from it OR people who make their living at being partisans) are indeed different from U.S. professional journalists (meaning, sigh, people who make their living from nominally nonpartisan reporting). Because either bloggers are ignored, in which case they can rant all they want with no negatives, or they can just leave if things get too hot, or their living is actually being partisan. It is very very tough for a professional journalist to take on a lying government official. So my point was not to be so eager to fight to the last drop of someone else’s blood.

    The smart thing for a professional journalist would be to hang back and let someone prominent raise the issue, and then “report” on that. NOT to take the hit themselves. And if no-one prominent does, well, that says something. Making this a subject about BLOGGERS VS. JOURNALISTS!!! is not dealing with the reality of the pressures in the system.

  14. #14 Karl
    on Apr 4th, 2008 at 6:41 am

    Seth: I think it is tough for anyone, professional or not (better to use that deliminator then ‘blogger’ or ‘journalist’ – I agree) to broach subject matter like this.

    The risks are actually far greater for a non-professional to write about such subject matter since a single mistake can land you in court (or jail) with no institution to back you up.

    Unfortunately, since it seems most TV news journalism these days *is* churnalism, the tactic you describe is one I think is actually followed by most mainstream news sources. Let someone else do the leg work. See if the story has any buzz, and *then* hop in and, for the most part, repeat and add commentary (not further reporting).

    So in one sense, we agree, making this about, yet again, bloggers vs. journalists leads no where (except maybe some buzz – sorry Dan).

  15. #15 Dan Gillmor
    on Apr 4th, 2008 at 10:05 am

    Karl, fair enough, and this isn’t about bloggers v journalists at all. Salon does journalism by any standard. But Salon doesn’t have the reach that the big traditional media orgs still have.

  16. #16 Karl
    on Apr 4th, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Hi Dan. Understood.

    But here’s the thing – that I know you know – the big traditional media orgs don’t have the reach they once did.

    Traditional media orgs are nichifying towards certain audience segments and choices abound.

    I’m not sure what mass media is anymore to tell ya the truth, except for “TV news” – and that is too general a term. There is “TV news of a feather” that we all flock to.

    And this discounts, entirely, the reach of blogs and alt-media as a whole – which is replacing – in relevance – to your average news follower – where they get the news. The Internet is the primary source of news for a majority of Americans now as studies are showing.

    The wheel has turned.

    And the Web, as a participatory infrastructure – should do the trick.

    But what we are doing with it is not.

    So ask yourself, why isn’t this front page on

    Anywhere on the Web?

    Because if you want reach – that’s it. Why are the editors at *those* web sites not surfacing this further? What are the pressures they are facing? What metrics are they using to determine what is front page news?

    And then, ask, the painfully hard question – is the new boss any different then the old?

  17. #17 mikeinportc
    on Apr 4th, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    “The smart thing for a professional journalist would be to hang back and let someone prominent raise the issue, and then “report” on that. ”

    I.e. be gutless &/or lazy.

    “So ask yourself, why isn’t this front page on ”

    They have a lot of the same sponsors/owners/audience as the MSM. ” Big” tends to = “bland”, in many things, so that’s probably part of it. It becomes less about satisfying andgaining more customer, and more about displeasing as few of the existing customers as possible . ( Thgink food and beer, for ex.)

  18. #18 mikeinportc
    on Apr 4th, 2008 at 12:38 pm


  19. #19 newdome
    on Apr 4th, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    “This kind of thing is why traditional journalism is forfeiting its soul.” But don’t forget they have the time to investigate and get to the bottom of whether or not Obama had a cigarette after he said he quit. You know important stuff that they have the obligation to inform citizens about.

  20. #20 Karl
    on Apr 5th, 2008 at 6:25 am

    mikeinportc – you just connected some dots there. Except your falling into the ‘big’ versus ‘small’ trap.

    Take a look again at megite, tailrank, and the blogs they aggregate well. Take a look at the right, left, and footer rails on those blogs.

    What’s ‘big’ to one is ‘small’ to another. And vice versa.

    I’ll stick to this – the wheel has definitely turned.

    People get their news from the web now. From blogs, from larger sites and services (I am not noting who is doing the original work, and who is passing it on – simply that it is the Web and our social networks that primarily inform us now).

    Finger pointing at the ‘big bad’ isn’t getting us anywhere since ALL of us are empowered to reach out to the entire world via the URL.

    There is NOTHING stopping US.

    And yet we are apparently no better informed.

    So I ask you *think*. *THINK*

  21. #21 Why doesn’t the 9/11 Commission know about Mukasey’s 9/11 story? By Glenn Greenwald « Dandelion Salad
    on Apr 5th, 2008 at 11:09 am

    […] the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University Law School — has posted a superb piece on this matter, focusing on what it reflects about establishment press behavior. The whole thing is worth reading […]

  22. #22 Jon Garfunkel
    on Apr 5th, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    re: “The failure of Congress to ask obvious questions is nothing new for that weak-kneed crowd…”

    Dan, you wrote this at 4:24pm? I suppose you didn’t know that an hour earlier, Pelosi’s staff made public the letter that John Conyers and the other members of the judiciary committee sent to the AG. Right after Greenwald linked to you, he linked to that.

    Though Conyers didn’t put it on his own blog.

    It’s tempting to cast blame on reporters for missing the story. But there’s a thousand explanations before institutional laziness. Maybe they are working on it. Maybe they’re waiting on an answer. Maybe there are other critical stories to report.

  23. #23 JNagarya
    on Apr 6th, 2008 at 12:17 am

    Yeah, Garfunkel: “Maybe this, maybe that, maybe ‘tother”.

    Meanwhile, the facts are specific and speak for themselves — no diversionary “maybes” about it:

    The media has abundant time to aggressively investigate fake smears, such as those myriad against President Clinton, and to themselves make up out of whole clothes distoritons about and with which to attack Al Gore.

    So “maybe” that’s why they haven’t the time to report actual news, instead of substituting partisan politics and editiorializing for that which is actual journalism.

    Tell us, Garfunkel: is it true that Obama actualy smoked a cigarette after asserting that he’d quit smoking tobacco? If so, what a terrible lie — should be investigated, and re-investigated, to death — spare no amount of double figure millions of dollars to do so. After all — who knows — that apparent lie maybe ties back to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

    But, in any event, by the asssessment and current standards of professional journalists in the legitimate media, that apparent lie is certainly and obviously of immeasurably greater importance than a little white lie or two or three by US AG Mukasey in defense of lawlessness, and in avoidance of the fact that torture is a war crime that cannot be made legal, and thus is lying in behalf of the war criminals who authorized and continue to engage in that war crime.

    Thanks to enablers such as you, Garfunkel, the rest of us are saved from losing our heads and going off half-cocked and as consequence demanding irrelevancies such as facts and truth, when in our sane momets we recognize that the best thing for us little folks is to be constantly buried in trivia and mindless entertainment. After all, we aren’t elected public officials authorized to deal with — or fabricate for our own good — reality.

    This reasoned rant, alas, is discredited by the fact that I sat behind my keboard while writing it, instead of sitting somewhere from which location it would have been beyond my reach.

  24. #24 Robert Halfhill
    on Apr 6th, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    I am surprised that no one has discussed the reason for the government’s inaction on the call from Afghanistan that I read in the Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE. An that is that NSA recorded the call but, because they were underfunded, they were short on translators and did not get around to translating the call from Arabic until after 9/11.

    I am not trying to excuse the government’s not acting on this call, assuming Mukassey is telling the truth. In fact, the explanation does not excuse the government’s not acting on this call since, if they knew it was from an Al Qaida safe house in Afghanistan, they could have moved it up on the priority list and found someone to translate it.

  25. #25 tee-hee
    on Apr 7th, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Robert Halfhill, did that Minnepolis Start Tribune story also point out that if this was the reason for not acting on the call, then it means the whole claim about FISA getting in the way is a lie? If it didn’t then it was just another example of stupid journalism.

    Perhaps you too have missed the relevant point there: It’s not about whether or not the call should have been moved it up on somebody’s priority list, it’s about the failure of the NSA to act on intelligence it had AND how the government is now using the consequences of their own intelligence failure to demand even broader eavesdropping powers without oversight.

    This “we dropped the ball because we’re underfunded” is exactly an excuse. A lame one, and it tries to distract from the stark fact that they dropped the ball. Apparently the decoy worked one you — you went running after that ‘low priority list’ excuse.

  26. #26 Karl
    on Apr 8th, 2008 at 4:37 am

    tee-hee and JNagarya ask yourselves – what are you doing to pursue and transmit this story?

    You have every capability to launch a blog and talk about it.

    But here you are, spending time attacking a commentor instead of doing the action that would be in the greater good – transmitting the story.

    Ask yourselves, why aren’t other bloggers than just a few liberal leaning ones?

    Perhaps the same things are in play for you and other bloggers that Jon Garfunkel attributed to journalists.

    The Web empowers ALL of us to reach out and communicate.

    The question – is – why do ANY of us do what we do.

    Think for a moment about yourself. The capability the Web gives you.

    And what you are doing with it.

    The world that many digerati celebrate is one of libertarian ideals – it is UP TO YOU to inform yourself and get out the word.

    If you don’t – you have no one else to blame.

    You either ‘get it’ – or you don’t.

  27. #27 Why doesn't the 9/11 Commission know about Mukasey's 9/11 story?-Politics and Government-EOG Sports Betting Forums
    on Apr 9th, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    […] NUTSHELL EXACTLY RD …. A Lie or Terrifying Negligence: Why Won’t Journalists Demand an Answer? April 3rd, 2008 by Dan Gillmor A truly extraordinary example of journalistic malfeasance is […]

  28. #28 Green Party: 2008 is last chance to Impeach Bush/Cheney « On the Wilder Side
    on Apr 10th, 2008 at 12:23 pm