The astonishing thing about the decision by Fox News to violate its promise to Richard Clarke to keep his briefing on background is that no one was actually astonished by it.
No one really thinks of Fox as an objective newsgathering operation; everyone knows that it’s really a branch of the RNC. So when it dutifully breaks a basic journalistic commitment at the behest of a Republican President, no one but Bob Kerrey even bothers to act surprised.
Note that this case is utterly unlike the unmasking of Valerie Plame. Clarke isn’t accused of having broken any law by giving that briefing, or of doing it for the purpose of damaging someone else. The pseudo-journalists who broke their word to him have absolutely no excuse for having done so.
The “backgrounder” can be, and often is, abused. But it’s part of of the system by which information from the government reaches the citizens. Thanks to the Mayberry Machiavellis and to Fox News, from now on every official who conducts such a briefing is going to have to watch his back. That’s probably, net, a loss both for the newsgathering process and for the public.
How damaging is that recording to Clarke’s credibility? If it contains assertions of fact flatly contradictory to what he’s saying now, the answer is “very damaging.” An official position is no excuse for lying.
But, as Dan Drezner points out, providing an account to the press that puts the current administration in a favorable light is simply part of the job of someone who holds the position Clarke held:
As anyone who’s worked in government should know, what’s said in an official capacity will read differently than what’s said when one is allowed to be candid. Clarke was acting as a dutiful bureaucrat in 2002, and not as an independent agent.
Dan, who is not a Clark fan but who approaches the question with a degree of detachment, concludes:
I’m not terribly persuaded that this should weaken Clarke’s credibility.
Note to pro-Bush bloggers: If Drezner is an authority when he criticizes Clarke, he’s also an authority when he clears Clarke of the charge of inconsistency.