Washington Post Stingy With Credit for Armitage Scoop

The Washington Post is notoriously stingy in crediting other media sources for breaking news.

By: Harry Jaffe

The Post has twisted itself into a pretzel to avoid crediting Michael Isikoff and David Corn for their scoop that Richard Armitage was Robert Novak's original source for outing CIA agent Valerie Plame.

In their book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Isikoff and Corn were the first to clearly establish that Armitage, then deputy secretary of State, told Novak that Plame was a spy. Novak's reporting of that fact touched off a media extravaganza and the appointment of a special counsel to find the leaker.

But in a number of news stories and one editorial, the Post neglected to credit Hubris for its reporting.

Post ombudsman Deborah Howell administered a mild spanking in an internal newspaper memo last week: "It does appear that their book forced Armitage to come clean," she wrote, "and Post readers don't know that."

What Post readers do know is that national reporter R. Jeffrey Smith wrote on August 29 that Armitage was the first leaker, "according to a former Armitage colleague at the department."

Smith didn't name the colleague, but in language that qualifies as contorted, he wrote further down in his piece: "A story this weekend by Newsweek magazine was the first to cite confirming statements by former Armitage associates."

In other words, Newsweek broke the Armitage leak story. The Newsweek piece was drawn from Hubris by Isikoff, investigative correspondent for Newsweek, and Corn, Washington editor of the Nation.

A few days later the Post published an editorial on the Plame matter and seemed to credit Smith with breaking the news—"according to a story this week by the Post's R. Jeffrey Smith, who quoted a former colleague of Mr. Armitage."

Isikoff and Corn felt ripped off by Smith's first story, but the editorial crediting Smith for their scoop sent them over the edge. Each protested to Howell, who as Post ombudsman would be in a position to give them some redress—perhaps.

In her weekly internal memo, Howell describes the Isikoff/Corn complaint and then writes: "I think they have a good point, though I don't think The Post needs to mention their book in every story."

Smith's stories, she writes, leave out the apparent fact that Isikoff and Corn forced Armitage to admit his leak.

Howell writes: "That leaves readers thinking [Smith] might have done it on his own hook, and it doesn't sound like it happened that way. I noticed Walter Pincus mentioned the book in his story today."

Howell then quotes Len Bernstein, who edited most of the stories. "We weren't trying to avoid crediting Isikoff," he says. "We've credited him on other stories, and unfortunately, probably will again. We credited the Newsweek story not the book, because that's where it came out first. And it wasn't an excerpt. I checked. . . ."

For Postologists, there is little surprise in the way the Post treated Isikoff and Corn. If a tree falls in the forest and that news goes out on the wires, it hasn't fallen for Post readers until the newspaper waits an appropriate amount of time, at which point it will break the news of the fallen tree as its own discovery.

Compare the Post's ungenerous approach with the New York Times's article on August 30, which credits Newsweek, the Washington Post, and "an account in a coming book, 'Hubris, the Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War' by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, excerpts of which appeared in Newsweek this week."

What makes the Post's contortions even stranger is that Newsweek is a sister publication—and Isikoff used to work at the Post.

Or maybe that helps explain everything.