Having had so many negative things to say about the media elite over the years, I think it's only fair to praise journalists when they set aside their normal human biases in order to dig deep and ask the tough questions -- all, of course, while maintaining an admirable empathy for our leaders' burdensome responsibilities.
On Friday's CBS Evening News broadcast, a somber Scott Pelley did just that. The moment was inspirational.
After announcing that the National Security Agency has improperly collected data on thousands of American citizens, Mr. Pelley continued, "No doubt this will disappoint the president, who said this [just a few weeks ago] ..."
My memory for the exact wording fails here, since I was dropping kitchen utensils to grab a pen and jot down these immortal words: "No doubt this will disappoint the president."
No doubt. No need to even ask!
CBS then played a long clip -- by today's fruit fly standards -- of President Barack Obama's recent claim that National Security Agency's practices could be trusted, which ended: "Part of the reason they're not abused is these checks are in place."
"While checks are in place," Mr. Pelley intoned, "it turns out mistakes are made."
Indeed. Correspondent Wyatt Andrews supplied details from a just-revealed NSA audit in which the agency admitted to "improperly collecting records on Americans almost 2,800 times in the year ending March 30, 2012. The NSA says most but not all of the unauthorized surveillance was unintentional and due to human error such as typing mistakes ..."
Here the proverbial "low-information voter" might relax -- mistakes were made; the president is disappointed -- and go back to the kickoff of her weekend.
But what about that pesky little phrase "most but not all"? If "not all" unauthorized surveillance was unintentional, then some of it was ... intentional, right? Targeting whom?
Was it just like the IRS's Tea Party targeting, where, you know, some rogue staffers in the Midwest decided to be, uh, proactive?
"Not everything was a mistake," repeated Mr. Andrews, who is obviously not as nice a guy as Mr. Pelley.
Moreover, "the NSA admits it kept more than 3,000 records on Americans that a secret federal court on surveillance ... had ordered the agency to destroy."
The NSA's compliance director told reporters, "The mistakes are routinely disclosed to the FISA court, to the Justice Department and to Congress. ... They're provided to multiple overseers, through multiple channels."
Nonetheless, many members of Congress were stunned to learn of these breaches, Mr. Andrews reported, and this will probably increase support for legislation to reform the NSA.
Mr. Pelley reassured us again: "The White House said the audit itself is evidence that the government is being careful." End of story.
A less charitable journalist might now ask: Doesn't the audit prove, contrary to White House claims, that the system does not work? Who ensures that the NSA will henceforth obey court orders to destroy illegally obtained records? How will we know if citizens are being intentionally spied upon?
A less-charitable journalist than Mr. Pelley might ask whether the president's National Security Council ever saw the audit. Despite the NSA's claims, very senior congresspersons did not, and boy, Democrats Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Nancy Pelosi were steamed!
They -- and we -- know about it only because Edward Snowden leaked it and other top-secret documents to The Washington Post.
And then a less-charitable journalist might ask: If the president was "disappointed," was it at being caught in a, um, misrepresentation? Was he embarrassed? Ashamed?
Speaking of ashamed: When I went to the CBS website on Saturday to double-check my notes, this story's oh-so-generous set-up -- "No doubt this will disappoint the president" -- had been removed.
That's too bad, because it was so inspiring. Imagine if other presidents had had the benefit of such journalistic empathy ...
"President Reagan will be very disappointed to learn that members of his staff sold weapons to fund the Contra rebels ..."
"George H.W. Bush will be chagrined to find out he has signed a bill that does in fact raise taxes ..."
"President Clinton will feel quite let down to realize he actually did have a type of sex with intern Monica Lewinsky ..."
"President Bush will be dejected to hear that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq ..."
"On Bended Knee" is a 1989 book by Mark Hertsgaard examining the news media's supposedly servile role during the Reagan presidency -- a title resurrected, hilariously, to describe how the press treated the younger Bush.
What phrase would capture their posture toward this administration? "Puckering Up to the Presidential Posterior"? Inquiring minds want to know -- there just aren't as many in the media as there are at the NSA.
Ruth Ann Dailey: email@example.com