April 11, 2006

The Sun Speaks with Reporter Lichtblau '87

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After giving a speech on the role of the journalist in a post-9/11 world, New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau ’87 sat down with The Sun to discuss the state of journalism today. Lichtblau was a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times for 15 years before serving as a Washington bureau correspondent for The New York Times. He recently won the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for his investigation of the domestic spying program.

The Sun: Your coverage of the domestic spying program has set off a major leak investigation that may carry legal reprisals. Given that President Bush authorized Vice President Dick Cheney to permit Scooter Libby to leak intelligence about the CIA, what do you think of that threat?

Lichtblau: Well, I think it’s still a real possibility. You know that they’re doing an active investigation. Some people would argue that Bush is in a little bit of a spot now because he did authorize the leak from Scooter Libby, so the investigation is hypocritical … I’ll get Judy Miller’s jail cell.

The Sun: As a Washington correspondent, do you ever feel like you’re being manipulated by the White House to convey the message they want you to convey?

Lichtblau: You certainly feel a confinement, yeah. These are P.R. professionals who get paid lots and lots of money out of the White House budget and that of every major agency to put their spin on the news, particularly the Bush administration – they do it better than other administrations. It’s their job to get a message across; it’s our job to sort of cut through the rhetoric and figure out what’s actually going on. It’s just part of the game.

The Sun: You’ve been doing this for 15 years at a couple different publications. How does the Bush White House compare to other administrations in its ability to manipulate the message?

Lichtblau: They’re probably better at it than most of the previous administrations. At least for the first three, four, maybe five years of the administration, they were very good at staying on point and not having people break links. There were far fewer numbers of internal officials who have turned on the White House, Paul O’Neill, people like that … That’s where you get to the truth in all these things, when people within the administration come out publicly and say [what’s been occurring … That happens less in this administration.

The Sun: But even with that as the case, President Bush’s approval ratings are hovering at percentages in the low 30s. What, then, would you say is the state of our government?

Lichtblau: That goes beyond my calling as a reporter. Why the public picks on certain issues and not others – political scientists debate that. Certainly Bush has had a very, very rough year or so on just about every front. Mostly Iraq, but then again, there’s other issues. Certainly the White House is concerned with these lost sums in ratings support and Republicans in Congress. He’s responded to that partly by changing his Chief of Staff.

The Sun: John Green, the Executive Producer of Good Morning America Weekend Edition, was just given a month’s suspension for sending an e-mail that was critical of President Bush to a colleague. What are your thoughts on ABC’s reaction?

Lichtblau: I was surprised by that. A month’s suspension seems pretty severe for something that, apparently didn’t, as far as we know, influence his coverage. Reporters are going to have their own personal opinions, and the key thing is not letting it influence your coverage. If you’re going to stop hiring reporters who have personal opinions, there aren’t going to be any reporters left to deliver the news.

The Sun: In a recent article you described Richard Convertino, a former federal prosecutor, as someone who was “once a rising star who fell out of favor with Washington.” When is it okay to integrate news analysis into news coverage?

Lichtblau: We do analysis on a regular basis, to try and give something context. Or, in a case like that, to tell people why Convertino’s indictment was so unusual – this rising star who fell into a hard time. There are some stories that are so analytically driven that we actually label them as “news analysis.”

The point here is to take a step away from the news and say, what is the reason that this is happening? What is the context? What is the history? It is sometimes, people argue, a fine line between analysis and opinion, so there are no hard and fast rules to what is news, what is analysis and what is just outright opinion. But you hopefully try to get people on the record to back up the points that you make to show that you’re not just making this stuff up.

Archived article by Erica Fink
Sun Editor-in-Chief