- 19 октября 2016, 01:21
- POLITICO. Top Stories
No craftsman likes doing his work while the customer looks over his shoulder. Plumbers hate it, electricians hate it, even the pool guy hates it. This truism goes double for the scribblers in the press corps, who would prefer that their methodology remain mysterious—especially the half-dozen Washington journalists who have been humbled this past week by the revelations in the hacked John Podesta emails released by WikiLeaks.
Those snared in Podesta’s flypaper are currently suffering an abundance of embarrassment for their shameless buttering-up and apparent cozinesss with their inside sources in Clintonworld. Reading the emails, we witness CNBC/New York Times contributor John Harwood slathering Podesta with flattery, giving him campaign advice and praising Hillary Clinton. In another email, the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin offers Podesta a “heads up” about a story she’s about to publish, providing a brief pre-publication synopsis. CNBC’s Becky Quick promises to “defend“ Obama appointee Sylvia Mathews Burwell.
New York Times Magazine writer Mark Leibovich (who wrote a famous book lambasting permanent Washington’s courtship rituals) asks Clinton’s press secretary, Jennifer Palmieri for permission to use portions of an off-the-record interview with the candidate. Palmieri withholds only a couple of comments and concludes her email to Leibovich, “Pleasure doing business!,” giving it a creepy, transactional vibe. POLITICO reporter Glenn Thrush sends Podesta a chunk of his story-in-progress “to make sure I’m not fucking anything up.” Beyond WikiLeaks, a January 2015 Clinton strategy document obtained by the Intercept describes reporter Maggie Haberman—then at POLITICO and now at the New York Times—as someone the campaign “has a very good relationship with,” and who had been called upon to “tee up stories for us before” and had never disappointed.
Conservative writers at Breitbart, the Daily Caller and elsewhere have seized on the leaked emails to accuse the establishment media of shilling for and colluding with the Clinton campaign. But that’s not how I read the emails. The toadying behaviors are driven by the power relationship between the news media and an administration or campaign. I would bet that many establishment reporters tiptoed around the Romney people as well, and asked them pretty-please for interviews. It’s a certainty that many of them bowed to George W. Bush when he was in the White House. Not saying it’s right. Just saying it is.
It's not impossible for reporters to get the story without fear or favor, extracting the goods from even unfriendly sources and then dropping them on an unsuspecting world. But in a world like Washington, that’s the exception. The more valuable the goods are, the harder they can be to get—and the more they can depend on oily relationship management.
The primary reason Washington operators can dictate the terms of engagement with Washington journalists is that the true insiders are few and the journalists are many. In medium-sized towns, the power dynamic is reversed, as the number of journalists is very small and sources are many. This means journalists need not ingratiate themselves in the same way to get a story. Until the Washington press corps is reduced by 90 percent—which won’t happen in our lifetimes—the mortifying dance we see in the Podesta emails will continue.
To lean on an overused metaphor, the Podesta emails give us all a strong sense of how the news sausage is made. But long before the invention of email, journalists routinely donned false faces to charm their sources. They pretended to be sympathetic, they feigned interest in their sources and their families, they fawned, they socialized with them, fed their egos and remembered their birthdays. If you were a Washington journalist, you would, too. The only difference between the old days and today is that many of the conversations are now preserved in electronic amber.
Critics of the reporters exposed by emails aren’t wrong to find these courtship rituals kind of icky. But few are talking about how the sausage ends up tasting. Eilperin, Leibovich, Thrush and Haberman appear to have conned their way into the inner sanctums to produce creditable work that is accurate and useful to readers. What appear to be compromises ultimately redound to their favor.
In my own journalism, this isn’t how I work: I don’t give my sources a sneak preview of what I’m writing—unless the topic is technical and complicated (law, medicine, science, tech, et al.) and demands an expert’s checkmark. When I worked as an editor, I did not allow my reporters to offer sneak previews, either. But I can’t come down hard on reporters who provide them in the interest of accuracy. Journalism is not a profession like law or medicine, no matter how we talk about it: There is no credentialing process that governs who can write a news story, no universally agreed-upon standards for what constitutes the trade’s proper practice. I may have my own standards, but I understand that there are others. A reporting trick that might get you suspended from the Washington Post might be standard practice at some other, perfectly legitimate, news outlet. As long as journalists resist playing the stenographer for their sources, I’m open as a news consumer to alternative methodologies.
I’m even open to the sort of sycophantic “source-greasing“ that John Harwood engaged in with Team Hillary. Harwood must have used up a couple of bars of Lava soap when the time came to remove the grime ground into his hands from writing those emails. I don’t engage in that sort of ass-kissery, but if ass-kissery fills his notebook and produces good copy, I’m willing to suspend judgment.
It was only a matter of time before journalists got netted in the email sieve like so many politicians, businessmen and academics before them. Lesson learned, maybe Washington journalists will stop over-relying on email and return to the time-honored audio burn-bag that is the telephone to court and seduce and exploit their sources. Meanwhile, over drinks, they will recover soon enough and laugh at your petty ethical concerns.
Remember, just because a Clinton memo depicts Maggie Haberman as pliant doesn’t mean she is. Sources exaggerate, too. I skipped the Donna Brazile episode because she’s not a journalist. Not a journalist? I’d love to hear from you via email: [email protected]. My email alerts cajole, my Twitter feed charms, and my RSS feed drinks too much.