Mirror, Mirror

For better or worse, the Scooter Libby trial offers a glimpse into Washington as it really is.

Why can't the media just get over themselves? If you've been following the coverage of the Scooter Libby trial, you know that a hefty chunk of it has been about the role journalists are playing in and around the courtroom. This makes perfect sense, given that various reporters and columnists are central to the substance of the case against Libby, not to mention Libby's own I-heard-it-from-Tim-Russert defense.

What doesn't make sense is the way some news outlets have been framing the media's involvement. Two strains are particularly annoying. First is the purported postmodern weirdness of reporters becoming part of the story. For instance, this week The Washington Post offered up a story headlined "The Big Uneasy: Insiders, Media Mingle Awkwardly at Libby Trial." The piece noted that "in this slice of Washington, courtroom spectators, witnesses, lawyers—even the judge—have been the subjects, sources, or authors of interconnected news stories," and that "the trial sometimes provides 'Alice in Wonderland' moments."

The second motif is the idea that the Libby case is bad for journalism, because it exposes journalists for the schmoozy, ruthless operators that they are. In the lead-up to the trial, Newsweek's Howard Fineman said on MSNBC's Hardball that the trial "is not a good thing for the press in this country, in my view. It's going to lay out all kinds of details about how things work that are not necessarily going to be ennobling or helpful to us in the future."

Jane Hall, a professor of communications at American University, said this week on Fox News, "This is the dirty little secret, I think, of this story.... You get to a certain level and the White House press secretary is trying to leak to the reporter from the network or from The New York Times. People are using each other to leak, to do all kinds of things."

Really? Since when is it a secret that people in Washington "are using each other" or that the White House tries to leak stories to promote its interests? Welcome to the 19th century. Nor is it particularly strange that reporters and officials who figure in "interconnected news stories" should run into each other in court—Washington has always been a pretty small place.

I think that, far from being an absurd hall of mirrors or a plague on the profession, the Libby trial is serving a useful purpose for journalists and their audience. Yes, it is complicated (another feature that is often bemoaned), but its complexity mirrors the world in which Washington journalists ply their trade. It's well known that this is often a rough place, a federation of users. But seldom does the public get to see precisely how it works, and why.

The popular view of the media is rooted in hackneyed stereotypes. Journalists are either saintly heroes (Murrow, Cronkite) or conniving villains (take your pick of recent plagiarists and fabulists). In reality, they're neither. Or rather, they're both and everything in between.

Like people in any trade, media types choose their calling for all kinds of reasons, some of them quite high-minded. And as in all professions, they wind up discovering that the work is more tangled and morally ambiguous than they had ever imagined. To thrive, you have to play angles and push envelopes. Trickiest of all, you have to cultivate relationships with powerful people who have the information you need to do your work, which is to get the story. When you yourself are powerful—as many Washington journalists are—and can produce something your sources need (say, a piece that gets their "message" out), there's an implied barter, and the opportunities for corruption multiply.

It's a high-stakes game. In the Libby trial, we have a living tableau of a bunch of people who were playing it together, against the backdrop of war. Nobody comes off especially well: The war was based on bad information and everyone in the news establishment got taken for a ride. And this is part of the story of how it happened. This is Washington, not as some screenwriter or scolding ethicist would have it, but as it really is. Transparency like this doesn't come along very often. Enjoy it while it lasts.