In an unusual move for a Sunday talk show pundit, this week Time Managing Editor Rick Stengel publicly replied to criticism of inaccurate statements he made about the prosecutor purge on Sunday’s Chris Mathews Show. (Riveting YouTube clip here.) Stengel had told Mathews he was “so uninterested” in Democratic efforts to make Karl Rove testify regarding the prosecutor scandal because doing so would be politically “bad” for Democrats, since such investigations are “not what voters want to see.” In fact, the public overwhelmingly supports congressional investigations into the Bush Administration’s conduct, according to nonpartisan polling, as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald reported in several thorough essays this week. After prodding by Greenwald, other bloggers, Time readers and Time blogger Ana Marie Cox, Stengel replied in a strange email posted on Time’s blog, most of which is below:
… I realize that I’ve been caught out speaking as a citizen rather than as editor of Time. Lord knows, the Democrats going after Karl Rove is “interesting” in an objective way for Time and for journalists in general. It’s hard to overstate Rove’s role in this administration and it would certainly create yards of headlines and good copy if the Democrats manage to get some traction. But as a citizen, I think it’s unfortunate and perhaps short-sighted for Democrats to be perceived as focusing on the past rather than the future. If people see the Democrats as obsessively concerned with settling scores, that’s not good for the Democrats or the country… (emphasis added)
There are two deeply disturbing problems with this response. The first problem, as Greenwald and others have noted, is that Stengel refuses to address his own error. Even when writing in response to factual criticism, he does not acknowledge the overwhelming public data undermining his assertion, let alone correct himself. (If Time had published the same claim, a correction would be in order.) It is disturbing to see a journalist, especially the managing editor of one of the leading news magazines in the country, so resistant to factual correction.
But there is a second, more subtle problem with the response that’s been largely overlooked. Critics have rightly focused on Stengel’s erroneous claims about public opinion. But even if Stengel weren’t wrong about public opinion, his email still reveals a cynical premise about how he thinks Congress should act.
Writing “as a citizen,” he finds it “unfortunate” that Democrats are pursuing these investigations, because that could lead people to perceive the Democrats as obsessively trying to settle scores. And that perception would not be good “for the Democrats or the country.”
The entire analysis consists of naked political strategizing, supposedly on behalf of the Democratic Party.
There is no pretense of addressing the proper nonpartisan role of congressional oversight. There is no analysis of how the Justice Department should serve the rule of law and the American public. The Democrats’ political prospects – supposedly jeopardized by a perception of score-settling – are simply conflated with what is “good” for the country.
When you look at it, Stengel’s vapid argument boils down to this: Democrats are playing politics with attorneygate, but they’re playing politics ineptly because the investigations will politically backfire, so Democrats should back off because that would be good for them politically. In other words, instead of playing politics by aggressively investigating, they should play politics by not aggressively investigating.
I think that sounds more like the logic of a cynical political operative than a “citizen” or journalist. But more importantly, the argument leaves Stengel calling on Congress to act on political expediency. Does he simply think Congress should not conduct worthwhile investigations that are politically unpopular? Should then-Senator Harry Truman have avoided investigating the military spending of his own party during World War II? Should the Republicans on the Watergate committee have refused to vote against their party’s president? And if, as Stengel believes, Democrats are taking a political risk by investigating the Bush Administration, is that really a good reason to back off investigations?
Stengel owes his readers an actual correction and a fuller explanation. Polls show Americans are “interested” in investigations precisely because the public resents the complete politicization of the government – which is what got the prosecutors fired in the first place. When Stengel implies that the only “interesting” issue is the cynical calculations he imputes to investigators, he endorses that very politicization.