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It's rarely worthwhile to revisit a recent topic, but the writing of, and response to, last Monday's column is too interesting to pass up. It gives unusual insight into a modern irony: Despite the Internet's vast resources, people can find as much news, or as little, as suits their agenda.
Many people first noticed the flap over Rep. Nancy Pelosi's military airplane around Feb. 7 or 8, when the nation's bigger media began covering it. But good and undisputed reporting had been under way for a full week.
The Washington Times, widely considered a conservative newspaper, was the first to break the story on Feb. 1, when both Pentagon and Bush administration sources revealed details of stalled negotiations with the speaker of the House.
"The sources ... said she is seeking regular military flights not only for herself and her staff, but also for relatives. ... The speaker's legal counsel [emphasis mine] is spearheading the talks."
On Feb. 6, some House Republicans brought the matter up in a floor debate on promoting alternative fuels.
On Feb. 7, the Washington Times reported that Rep. John Murtha had "telephoned administration officials to urge them to give the speaker what she wants."
This appears to be the day that other news organizations picked up the story. The New York Times and many other sources reported that, when asked about calls to the Pentagon on Ms. Pelosi's behalf, Mr. Murtha said, "I don't need to pressure them. I just tell them what they need to do."
He also said the Pentagon was making "a mistake" leaking negative information "since [Ms. Pelosi] decides on the allocations for the Department of Defense."
Also on Wednesday ABC News reported it was Ms. Pelosi's "office" expressing concern about refueling stops and reviewing the four sizes of planes available.
The New York Times reported Thursday that the Pentagon had sent Ms. Pelosi a letter saying "she would receive courtesy military shuttle service ... but that it might not always be nonstop. The letter said that she could not be given a plane ... to political events and that family members would have to make some reimbursement." The request for this information came from, news sources agree, the speaker's office.
By Thursday evening, ABC News was reporting that "Pelosi's tune had changed," from Wednesday's insistence on nonstop service to Thursday's acceptance of whatever was available or even commercial flights.
Also on Thursday, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood stated that the initial request for Ms. Pelosi's airplane had come from him, as well as an insistence on nonstop flights.
An Associated Press article on Mr. Livingood's role and on the White House's defense of Ms. Pelosi adopted the tone of breezy dismissal apparent in Tony Snow's word, "silly." Most irate readers I heard from e-mailed a copy of this article, often via political blogs, as if AP's brief, tardy coverage was definitive.
Close reading of all the news available, however, reveals that none of the reports cancels others out. For instance, Mr. Livingood's initiation of the request doesn't mean that Ms. Pelosi, her staff and Mr. Murtha didn't also make requests -- or, in Mr. Murtha's case, threats. They did. This reporting has not been disproven; indeed, Ms. Pelosi's first statements on the conflict confirm her involvement, and Mr. Murtha has boasted of his role.
Having read every bit of this reporting, and recalling Ms. Pelosi's repeated claims that she would be more fiscally responsible and environmentally sensitive than her predecessor, I termed her behavior "high-flown hypocrisy" but the actions of her closest ally, Mr. Murtha, "appalling" corruption. This important distinction was part of a column noting that abuse of power is a bipartisan failing.
But people who would savage George Bush for asserting the sky is blue fell all over themselves to embrace the White House's support of Ms. Pelosi, forgetting that it might simply be savvy political posturing: The White House got to speak softly while some House Republicans wielded a medium-size stick, just as Washington headed into congressional debate on the Iraq surge.
And there, leading the House Democrats anti-surge effort, was Jack Murtha, who had repeatedly said the week before that defense budgets could be held hostage to Ms. Pelosi's personal agenda.
To the ancient admonition not to argue ad hominem, attacking the man rather than the merits of his case, we ought to add a warning against arguing ad medium. Just as an Iraq policy cannot be dismissed simply because Mr. Murtha espouses it, the facts on his corruption can't be dismissed simply because they appeared first in the Washington Times.
All this information is out there, at your fingertips, but you have to want to find it.
First Published February 19, 2007 12:00 am