Journalism as she is practiced: Condi Rice, Karl Rove, and racial preference

Those who observe the news process have much to learn from the pair of stories in the Washington Post Friday and Saturday. The stories concern the role of Condoleeza Rice in the Bush Administration’s decision to come down against the University of Michigan’s policy of racial preferences in undergraduate and graduate admissions. [See the two posts immediately below on the language and substance of the issue; this one is about journalism and politics.]

As Sisyphus Shrugged points out in a long, hilarious essay, Post reporters Mike Allen and Charles Lane performed a remarkable feat of journalistic contortionism: writing an entire story whose very point, from the perspective of those who planted it, was the race of its subject, while mentioning virtually every fact about that person but her race.

The story was designed to establish that Bush’s decision was approved, and indeed suggested, by an Actual Black Person, so what’s that you were saying about racism, you miserable Guilty Southern White Boy? It’s a remarkable effort at spin control: not so much that its author (presumably Karl Rove) had the effrontery to try it, but that the Post was supine enough to let him get away with it.

Of course, the story said nothing about the prime irony involved: by fronting Rice as an Actual Black Person, the administration demonstrated the occasional value of having an ABP around, and thus of efforts to promote diversity, such as the very efforts on the part of the University of Michigan the Administration had just asked the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional.

It appears that Colin Powell wasn’t prepared to play: he has been, and remains, on record in favor of preference programs, which he has acknowledged gave his own career a useful boost or two. (What’s that you said, Mr. Belafonte?)

But it also appears that Rice wasn’t willing to be used quite to the extent that Rove, or whoever it was, tried to use her. Saturday’s Post had a follow-up story by Allen in which Rice “clarifies” her position: it seems she thinks that the use of race as a factor in admissions can be appropriate, though she thinks that facially “race-neutral” means to increase diversity should be tried first. (The brief filed by the administration in the law school case acknowledges that “diversity” can be sought as a goal, but seems to argue that adequate race-neutral means to boosting it are always available, so that in practice it could never be used. The brief is also notable for its invention of the spectacularly self-contradictory concept of an “imprecise quota.” [p. 38])

The follow-up story (by, remember, the lead author of the original story) contains the following paragraph, to be chewed and savored by connoisseurs of the art of not admitting error:

Rice’s statement came after an article in The Washington Post yesterday in which several White House aides said she had played a crucial role in Bush’s deliberations and helped persuade him to publicly oppose Michigan’s program. Officials who described her role to The Post noted that it was unusual for her to become such a major factor in an issue that did not involve foreign policy. Their comments had the effect of associating a respected African American adviser to Bush with a decision that has been criticized by many black leaders. Rice reportedly was angry about the article in part because she believed it had been written only because she is black.

So (1) the Washington Post published a story attributing views and actions to a senior official without ever interviewing that official, (2) the story got that person’s views and actions substantially wrong, but (3) no apology is called for. Nor does the reporter reveal the name of the person who (one must assume) deliberately misled him, and led him to mislead the country. It is well understood as a matter of journalistic ethics that the identity of a source speaking on background can be revealed if it turns out that the source was using anonymity in the service of an effort to deceive. It is also understood as a matter of practical politics that any reporter who burns Karl Rove in that fashion is toast.

This event will not, of course, damage the position of the Post as one of the “liberal media” in the world of right-bloggic demonology. That it put the President’s National Security Advisor in a thoroughly false position is evidently of no concern to Rove & Co.; after all, it’s not as if we were at war or anything.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: