Stop Me Before I Politicize Again!

Glenn Greenwald has had an interesting back and forth with Chuck Todd about comments Todd made on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, in which he said, among other things, that the question whether torture should be investigated were “cable catnip” that threatens to distract us from important issues, and that it is “very dangerous” to investigate such things. You can read his comments and watch the video here. The transcript of Glenn’s subsequent podcast with Todd is here.

It’s quite something. Todd repeatedly argues that it would be much too messy and political to actually hold government officials accountable for breaking the law. For instance, when Glenn asks why we shouldn’t prosecute such officials when we think they’ve broken the law, Todd replies:

“I agree, in a perfect world — Glenn, in a perfect world, yes. And if you could also guarantee me, that this wouldn’t become a show trial, and wouldn’t be put, and created so that we had nightly debates about it, that is the ideal way to handle this.”

Why only in a perfect world? And what, as Glenn asks, is wrong with “nightly debate about whether our government committed crimes” — at least when there’s credible evidence that it did?

It’s worth reading the podcast transcript in its entirety. Here I just want to make three points. First, the idea that we should not prosecute government officials who break the law whenever it would cause some sort of political fight amounts to the view that we should never prosecute government officials who break the law at all. And this idea is incredibly dangerous. We are supposed to have a government that is bound by law. If no member of the government is ever prosecuted when there’s evidence that s/he broke the law, then the only reason why government officials would obey the law is their own conscience and sense of duty. Sometimes that’s sufficient, but we’d be fools to rely on it.

Second, the idea that we should not prosecute politicians who break the law is just one more example of the idea that people with power should be able to live by different rules. When someone borrows an ordinary person’s car and, unbeknownst to her, uses it to sell drugs, sending her to jail is “being tough on crime”; when a government official abuses his office, even hinting at prosecution is just “cable catnip” and a sign that you’re a member of “the hard left”.

This idea is odious, and it’s antithetical to everything this country is supposed to stand for. People with power and privilege have a lot of advantages already. In particular, they will probably always do better in the legal system than the rest of us, since they can afford to hire very good lawyers. For that very reason, we should resist with all our might the idea that they should be given even more privileges.

Third: the reason why Chuck Todd seems to think that it would be “dangerous” to prosecute government officials when there is evidence that they have broken the law is that it might turn into what he calls “a political trial”, and might even become “political footballs”. I do not believe that this is a good reason not to investigate crimes. (Lots of trials become “political footballs”: the trial of the officers who beat Rodney King, for instance, or Marion Barry’s trial for crack cocaine. Does anyone think that we should simply have given those officers or Marion Barry a pass?) But politicized trials do do damage, and so it’s worth asking: how might we minimize the chances that some trial might be unduly politicized?

The best answer I can think of is: the media might really try to do a good job of explaining the issues. When someone tried to say something misleading, they could call that person out. When prosecution of a government official was unwarranted, they could make that clear. And when there really was a plausible case that a government official had committed a crime, they could make that clear as well.

Which is to say: if Chuck Todd were really worried about trials being politicized, he would be in a wonderful position to prevent that from happening.

But I don’t see much evidence that he is interested in that. In the podcast with Glenn, Chuck Todd makes (by my count) plain errors on five important factual questions. He is wrong about the kind of prosecutor under consideration, he is wrong to think that what Holder is proposing to investigate is interrogations that conform to Yoo’s legal opinions, he is wrong about the duties of Justice Department lawyers, he was wrong about the legal status of firing the US Attorneys, and he was wrong about the state of American public opinion. And those are just the plain, obvious errors: I’m not counting things like his claim that prosecutions would harm our image abroad, or that there’s a serious debate about whether Yoo’s memos were defensible.

That’s a lot of factual mistakes for one short podcast — enough to make me think that Chuck Todd is not as concerned as he ought to be about getting it right. If he were, and if he could bring some of his colleagues along, we might not have to worry nearly as much about politicization.

We should expect more of our journalists. They need to get the facts right. They need to figure out the legal issues at stake in a case like this, not just listen to flacks from both sides, throw up their hands, and say “it’s not black and white!” If he did a better job, he wouldn’t have to worry so much about politicizing the justice system, and he might take pride in the fact that he helped shed light on complicated issues, when he might have just gotten lazy.

Of course, it’s not just Chuck Todd, who is, alas, one of the better TV journalists out there. He’s just the one who cited the incompetence of his profession as a reason to abandon the rule of law.