Howard Fineman and the Harmans: a Match Made in Journo-Political Hog Heaven


It’s one thing for a reporter to have a billionaire in his pocket and pick his own next owner. It’s another for the reporter, Newsweek‘s esteemed Howard Fineman, to have pocketed the billionaire by boosting his wife in print for years.

I went to the Columbia Journalism dinner in 2006 when Fineman won its alumni award and loved his mission speech. I lean on his every word on MSNBC.

But, as Fineman has made sure we all know by now, he brought Sidney Harman to the table, convincing Newsweek‘s new owner to bid after a long lunch about how great the magazine’s investigative reporters are. Can’t wait for Michael Isikoff to take a look at this swarmy nexus, except he just left for NBC.

Fineman is now busily explaining that he lassoed Harman only because he and the two Harmans, including wife Jane, the congresswoman from California, have been friends forever. Their kids went to the same elite school. Jane sat at the Fineman piano in 2008 for Howard’s book party and the book’s acknowledgements celebrated Jane and Sidney as two of Fineman’s closest friends. Isn’t that precisely the problem with our politics?

Fineman can’t be Jane Harman’s friend and our eyes/ears/smell-test nose at the same time, much less a friend that can powerbroke a purchase of this scale. Howard owes readers and viewers more than that, especially those who turn to him for truth on Keith Olbermann’s show.

Ed Koch was a pallbearer at Abe Rosenthal’s funeral and the Times was in the tank with Koch for all 12 often troubled years, even endorsing his re-election in 1989, when all that was left was the gas.

Mike Bloomberg lists Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman as one of his four best friends.

And that’s just the collusion at the top. As distinguished as the well-named Fineman appears to be, he is still just a foot soldier with a computer for a weapon. If we can talk a billionaire into taking on multi-millions in immediate liabilities and many more in future losses, we are definitely hobnobbing above our rank. Make that part of your next journalism award speech.

I only had time to do a quick search or two, but Fineman did a 2004 column nominating candidates to become John Kerry’s vice presidential running mate. Believe it or not, the anti-war Kerry, who was for it before he was now very definitely against it, was supposedly considering the most hawkish Democrat in California, Jane Harman. Presumably Fineman was referring to himself when he wrote that “the Great Mentioner” considered the then little known Harman as a possibility.

By 2006, Harman’s profile had grown. That October 11, Fineman wrote:

“If the Democrats take the House back, Jane Harman is in line to become chair of the House Intelligence Committee. She and Nancy Pelosi have been enemies politically — Harman supported a competitor to Pelosi for Democratic leader. But Harman has gotten excellent notices for her work on intelligence matters, and has worked hard — and with some success — to patch up relations with Pelosi and with critics who thought she was too supportive of the war in Iraq.”

Fineman’s usually impeccable sources failed to penetrate the fog of friendship on this one. On November 21, 2006, the Los Angeles Times‘ ever-accurate Michael Finnegan (and a colleague) wrote a piece exploring the tensions between Pelosi and Harman, a couple of California congresswomen who go way back together. “These days the two rarely talk,” the Times reported, adding that Pelosi had “indicated as early as last year that she intended to oust Harman from the intelligence committee.” This was quite a turnaround since Pelosi had picked Harman to succeed her on the committee in 2002.

The Times piece pointed out that Harman had made 18 appearances on the Sunday talk shows to Pelosi’s six over the past two years. “Associates of Pelosi say she was not troubled that Harman was on television frequently,” the Times reported, “only that the Democratic message on Iraq wasn’t being aired.” Weren’t all of us who watched just as frustrated? Soon thereafter, Pelosi named Silvestre Reyes, an actual critic of the war and the warrantless eavesdropping and all the rest of the Bush/Cheney era that Harman found so endearing.

Actually, within days of Fineman’s intrepid prediction, Time, whose reporters must have been chuckling at Howard over their keys, revealed that the FBI and the Justice Department were investigating Harman to determine if she’d “violated the law in a scheme to get the Intel appointment.” Time said then that the probe was “a spinoff” from a case that led to the indictment of two AIPAC officials, and that Harman may have been involved in a quid pro quo, trading her own pressures on the Justice Department on behalf of the AIPAC officials in exchange for AIPAC backing her appointment.

Harman dismissed it as scurrilous at the time, but in 2009, CQ reported that the congresswoman had been overheard on one of the NSA wiretaps she so championed telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department to reduce espionage-related charges. She reportedly said she’d “waddle into” the probe “if you think it’ll make a difference.” The agent then promised to get friends to lobby Pelosi to make Harman chair in exchange. CQ said that Bush AG Alberto Gonzales had killed the investigation as a favor to Harman.

Harman was known to be so close to the Bushies and the neocons that she hosted a private dinner in her house in 2006 for 120 top fundraisers for AIPAC and turned the floor over to National Intel Chief John Negroponte and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, another buddy of Fineman’s who showed up at his book party. According to CQ, Negroponte opposed any charges against Harman over the AIPAC case.

Jane Harman was said to have told the Israeli agent at the end of her whispered exchange: “This conversation doesn’t exist.”

Hell of a motto for a news magazine.

Research assistance by: Gavin Aronsen, Michael Cohen, Nicole Maffeo, and Adam Schwartzman.