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HARPER: Swirl of scandals presents a test for press
Question of the Day
Not since the days of the Nixon administration has this country seen such government malfeasance as under President Obama.
The administration tried to cover up what happened in Libya and lied to the American people. The Department of Justice launched a clandestine investigation of journalists at The Associated Press. The Internal Revenue Service used its enormous power against opponents of the administration, including tea party groups and other religious and conservative organizations.
As a young reporter in Washington, I covered then-Sen. Howard Baker, the Tennessee Republican who served as vice chairman of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, known informally as the Senate Watergate Committee.
Many of the reporters in Washington weren't around when Mr. Baker asked almost every witness: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
Ironically, what may be the worst week for the Obama administration coincides with the beginning of the Watergate hearings exactly 40 years ago.
Journalists must apply Mr. Baker's question to each of the present scandals. Unfortunately, the difference between the days of Watergate and today is that many journalists want to be on the White House guest list rather than on the president's enemies list — a badge of honor back in 1973.
What also is disturbing about these scandals is the Washington media had little to do with making them public. Much of the press downplayed the uproar over the Benghazi attack and the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, as a GOP partisan effort.
Only a week ago, The New York Times' editorial board lambasted Republicans for engaging in "conspiracy-mongering and a relentless effort to discredit President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton."
But Gregory Hicks, the State Department's No. 2 man in Libya at the time of the Benghazi attack, testified how he was overruled by key figures, including Mrs. Clinton's longtime friend and aide, Cheryl Mills, on how the administration would handle the aftermath of the attack. He knew terrorists had been responsible, but the administration emphasized the role of an anti-Islamic video, an utterly absurd claim. To this longtime reporter, the Obama administration's tactics sound a lot like Nixon telling his aides to lie about U.S. troops fighting in Cambodia. Neither lie worked for very long.
The Department of Justice investigation of the phone records of AP reporters has outraged journalists across the political spectrum, primarily because their brothers and sisters in the media came under scrutiny. It is inconceivable to me that no one at the White House knew what the investigators were doing in the name of national security. It's worth recalling that the articles of impeachment against Nixon included his authorization of 17 wiretaps.
The IRS focused mainly on the opponents of the Obama administration. Again, that's straight out of the Nixon administration's playbook.
Mr. Obama described the Benghazi investigation as a "sideshow." He has had no comment about the AP matter and has condemned the IRS actions.
Still, it remains unclear what he knew about these three scandals and when, in fact, did he know it. It's time for journalists, many of whom have ignored the malfeasance of this administration, to start asking Mr. Baker's question over and over again in the weeks ahead. And, if Mr. Obama didn't know anything, why not?
Update: After my column of March 27, which chastised the national media for their lack of coverage of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit B. Gosnell, there was a sudden increase in press attention to the trial. Twenty-nine journalists covered the conviction of Gosnell for killing three babies and more than 200 other criminal charges. He was sentenced this week to three consecutive terms of life in prison.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20." He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @charper51
About the Author
Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20” for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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