Media Criticism

A Brief Word In Response to Jack

By Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey
Wednesday, February 6, 2013, 8:43 AM

We don't disagree with Jack that the filling in of details in the White Paper is important---and didn't mean to suggest otherwise. But the importance Jack assigns to this aspect of the White Paper is decidedly not what has made it headline news for just about every major news organization in the country. If that were the case, the appropriate headline would have been: "Another Summary of the Same Legal Argument on Targeted Killing: Administration's Position Fleshed Out a Little." And that's not the headline anyone is running. What animates the whole debate over this document, rather, has been a sense of this as something big and new---and different. And that's wrong.

The naive reader of Michael Isikoff's original piece, for example, would learn from his first sentence of a "confidential Justice Department memo" that "concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens . . . even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S." This reader would have to dive deep into the story before finding out that this "confidential Justice Department memo" is not, in fact, the famed OLC memo authorizing the strike. And while the story describes Attorney General Eric Holder as having given a speech on same the subject that follows the same broad arc as the White Paper, it consistently emphasizes where the memo goes further than Holder---thus implying that that in important respects, the White Paper has broken new ground. Nothing Isikoff says is demonstrably wrong, but a naive reader comes away with the wrong idea both about what the document is and about its marginal value.

And this presentation of the matter has hugely affected the press coverage more broadly. Just look at the headlines:

We could go on. But you get the point. This document is not being received as---to use Jack's phrase---important because it "fills in the details of the legal arguments made in general terms in leaks and speeches." It's being received as a bombshell of its own. And while the document is certainly important for the added richness and texture it offers elite readers, its marginal value to the mass audience is very nearly nil.