Eugene Robinson Live

May 21, 2013

Live chat with Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to our weekly chat. Attention today is understandably focused on the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornado. In this morning's column, I worked up a head of steam over the Obama administration's attempt -- in the AP and Fox News cases -- to equate investigative reporting with espionage. Totally wrongheaded and, yes, chilling. And of course we still have the other "scandals"  -- Benghazi, which still isn't a scandal at all, and the IRS, which may be a scandal but probably not one that hurts the president politically. Let's get started.

And we did nothing, because we don't like the Tea Party and we love the Obama administration. Then they came for the diplomats, and we did nothing, because we don't care about the diplomats, and we love the Obama administration. Then they came for the liberal journalists at the AP, and we finally decided to do our jobs. Welcome to the fight, Gene.

Do you even read my column? If you did, you'd notice that most of it is a defense of a Fox News reporter's right to practice journalism without being called a co-conspirator in espionage. There are not many things in which I have absolute belief.  Journalism is one of them.

Hi Eugene -- it's great to have you back chatting today. If the latest polling is to be believed, President Obama does not appear to be taking much of a hit approvalwise despite his current troubles. Any thoughts as to why that might be the case? Is a lot of this inside baseball/inside the Beltway ado that the general public doesn't care much about?

It's because people care about jobs, the economy, their families, the future... not about bureaucratic snafus or even a fight between the government and the media. Shocking, I know. 

I don't doubt that Obama was unaware of the IRS scandal. However I do question the logic behind a management group that would intentionally avoid telling the leader of the executive branch, that one of its most public organizations unfairly targeted his rivals on a wide scale. Is he more concerned with having plausible deniability than actually solving this problem? The way the executive branch has washed their hands of the IRS problem and stated (not too convincingly) that this wasn't something they could do anything about is very disconcerting. If the IRS had rogue employees targeting anyone who used progressive in their group name, I think the concern would be a lot higher.

I have no reason to believe this would be playing out differently if liberal groups had been targeted, but I guess that's a theological question. I do think you have to wonder, however, whether the president's staff served him well in this case (and in some others I could cite).

I am puzzled by your column today in which you say about a Fox reporter: "Rosen has not been charged." and then say that if this administration's attitude about leaks had been the case in earlier administrations, that various famous news people would have gone to prison. Wouldn't that have required them to be charged first? I don't think that you can reasonably assume that charges will be filed when they haven't been.

It's a perfectly reasonable assumption. If you read the FBI affadavit, the accusation is that Rosen appears to have committed a crime. The FBI had to allege this so a judge would agree to let them snoop through Rosen's private Gmail account. If prosecutors are going to keep making this claim, eventually they're going to have to file charges -- or judges will deny the warrants they seek.

Should we allowed groups that are purely political (like the two mentioned above, the Crossroads group etc) to have tax exempt status. With the amount of money they are bringing in, at the very least it could be an additional revenue for the government. These are groups whose main goal is to get people in office and get out those they don't. The ideas that Moveon, CAP or Crossroads are doing social services is kind of a joke.

Yes, the idea that all these nakedly poilitical groups are "social welfare" organizations is ridiculous. I pretty much guarantee, though, that if this loophole somehow gets closed, another will open.

Hillary's infamous faux-outrage seems to be the new limbo bar for this Administration. Pfeiffer said where the President was during the Benghazi critical hours is "irrelevant," as is the law in the IRS matter. The only reason the AP story seems to be having legs is because it is the press whose ox is being gored. That's the difference.

No, it isn't. Benghazi was a tragedy -- four Americans working in one of the most dangerous posts in the world were killed. But it was not a scandal, any more than the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon was a scandal or the bombing of the USS Cole was a scandal. The IRS mess is a genuine outrage. The actions of the government toward AP and Fox News threaten the ability of the press to do what it's supposed to do, which is to find out what the government doesn't want you to know. 

Eugene: It is a favorite American pastime to malign our public employees and few get rougher treatment than public school teachers, who are supposed to be lazy and incompetent. Yet, we read today of schoolchildren reporting that teachers in Moore, Oklahoma, used their bodies to shield their students so the children might live even if it meant their own lives. We read that teachers at Sandy Hook placed their bodies between the shooter and their students so that the children might live. We've heard the same stories at all the school shootings and I trust I don't need to talk about the valor of soldiers and first responders (who are also public employees). Do you think the lunkheads who like to malign public employees as petty tyrants and dictators, who always assume the worst motives (thinking the IRS "scandal") might stuff a sock in it just for one day in recognition that many of our public servants are just that, and that they not only do their jobs well but sometimes valiantly and heroically? Thanks.

Thank you. Well said.

Read a really good commentary on how the Tea Part/Republican Right has now learned that being profiled by a government agency based on nothing but a cursory characterization (like your political beliefs) kind of sucks. Welcome to the world of Muslims going through an airport or young black men walking in 'upscale' stores. Yes, it does suck when people look at your name, or your affiliations and decide you need additional scrutiny - in this case for potential tax fraud. Welcome to the America that many of us experience every day (and that you supported when it wasn't you getting targeted.)

None of that excuses what the IRS did. But we do learn, don't we, when we walk in others' shoes.

"Sometimes reporters come across information whose disclosure would genuinely put national security at risk. When officials appeal to news organizations on such grounds, editors listen." What happens when officials do not appeal to news organizations? Do news organizations police themselves? Do news organizations appeal officials for clarity?

When a news organization finds out something the government doesn't want anyone to know, the reporter calls officials for comment, thus alerting them that the secret is out. I spent years as an editor here at the Post and participated in meetings in which officials asked the paper not to publish a story or to redact some specific information. I can tell you that editors take these entreaties very, very seriously. I can recall times when we have erred on the side of caution -- and later wished we had gone ahead and published.

While the terror danger was over, the AP identified an undercover AQ operative endangering his life and possibly ruining his career just as what happened with Valrie Plame. I am a firm believer in the First Amendment; but not at the cost of endangering lives and ruining people's careers. As far as FOX, to be fair and honest, I have no idea if there is a rest of the story there. We need another Paul Harvey...

Paul Harvey was no friend of government secrecy. You don't have to take my word if you don't want to, but I've been in this business for a long, long time and I can tell  you that every administration has a tendency to stamp "SECRET" on documents that could and should be in the public domain. 

I'm disappointing that Obama hasn't been on fire this second term when he finally doesn't have to worry about running again. Instead it seems like he's lost the fight in him and almost seems content to be a caretaker for the rest of his term. What happened to his pep, his spunk, his anger?

His mojo? He tends to get it back, eventually.

When journalists go after anybody, the targets always seem to be categorized negatively; fairly or not. Yet, when somebody goes after journalists, the news media community has a knee-jerk reaction, where those journalists become Saint Francis or Mother Theresa. Although current day journalists like the Breitbarts and Drudges don't help - even if they are not actual journalists, they are seen that way by the public - questionable journalistic ethics have been around since the beginning of the Country (see, John Peter Zenger) The Executive Branch investigators could not do what they have been doing recently, without the sanction of the Judicial Branch. Those two branches are hardly in cahoots with each other. The journalist community "...doth protest too much, methinks." Comment?

Saint Francis would have been a lousy investigative reporter. Mother Theresa was tough, though, and she might have done well. If you're asking why I'm defending a Fox News reporter, it's because he was doing what journalists do -- gathering information and bringing it to light. From the FBI affidavit it appears that he crossed no ethical red lines. Did he flatter his source, play to the guy's ego, let the guy think he was on his side? Uh, yeah. You make a good point about the judiciary, and I think the judge in the Fox case should have denied the warrant. I hope that future attempts to criminalize the reporting process, if there are future attempts, meet with more skepticism and scrutiny.

Do you think the press is the "last line of defense" in protecting Americans from a dictatorial government?

I don't know what's the first line, what's the last line, what are the lines in the middle... And I don't lose sleep over the highly unlikely possibility of a "dictatorial" government. I worry more about government being ineffective, dishonest, beholden to special interests and focused on the wrong problems or solutions. Journalism helps hold government accountable.

Good morning, Mr. Robinson: I have a question and comment. First, if the GOP continues to present the Benghazi attack in terms of failure, collusion and cover-up (especially since they voted tor reduce embassy security the year before the attack,) is it fair or effective to revive the charges of potential war crimes committed by members of the Bush Administration re: Iraq/WMD and to push for criminal actions, considering there is no statue of limitations on such crimes? And my comment concerns President Obama's and the Dems ineffective management of the first several months of his administration. We're back to letting the GOP craft all of the relevant messages, with Dems on the defensive. Thoughts?

You can't play tit for tat like that. I argued for some kind of truth commission to bring to light all the excesses of the Bush years, but President Obama decided the nation would just move on. So here we are. In terms of the message wars, the GOP doesn't seem to be getting much traction these days. Maybe they should try, you know, governing instead of yelling.


And that's all the yelling you'll hear from me this afternoon. My time is up. Thanks for participating, and I'll see you again next week!

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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