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Why journalists should not schmooze with politicians

A week before his inauguration, Barack Obama had dinner at the home of conservative columnist George Will (aka “the man who confuses pomposity with profundity”). Also in attendance were conservative and neo-conservative columnists Bill Kristol (aka, “the man who is almost always wrong”), David Brooks (aka, “the man who can be depended upon to say the most obvious things in the most banal way”), and Charles Krauthammer (aka, “the man who loves torture”).

This caused a stir in the pundit world. A few liberals worried whether Obama would be swayed by this group and abandon his policies and suddenly declare that more tax cuts for the rich, more torture, and more wars was the way to go. Conservatives worried that ‘their’ pundits would be charmed and won over by Obama and put away their knives and become lapdogs.

The very next day, Obama put these alarmed pundits mind at ease by meeting with a group of supposedly ‘liberal’ columnists (Andrew Sullivan, Roland Martin, Rachel Maddow, the Gene Robinson, the Boston Globe’s Derrick Z. Jackson, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Jerry Seib, Ron Brownstein, DeWayne Wickham and E.J. Dionne Jr.)

So in the world of politicians and elite media, everything was ok. That desirable quality of ‘balance’ had been restored. Rarely did you find the sentiment expressed that both events should never have happened.

I find the whole idea of journalists schmoozing with politicians distasteful. I don’t blame Obama or other politicians for doing it. Shrewd politicians love to cultivate social interactions with journalists because they know that they can use that access to reward and punish journalists and thus control them. John McCain was very good at this, even calling the media ‘his base’, and used them to advance his career before the relationship turned sour towards the end of his last campaign.

The people I fault are the journalists. They have no business having off-the-record, friendly, social meetings with the politicians they are supposed to be covering. The ideological labels attached to the participants are irrelevant. Journalists and politicians should never be friends.

I. F. Stone, one of the greatest journalists America has produced, refused to meet socially with politicians for very good reasons. This is what Stone said:

It’s just wonderful to be a pariah. I really owe my success to being a pariah. It is so good not to be invited to respectable dinner parties. People used to say to me, ‘Izzy, why don’t you go down and see the Secretary of State and put him straight.’ Well, you know, you’re not supposed to see the Secretary of State. He won’t pay any attention to you anyway. He’ll hold your hand, he’ll commit you morally for listening. To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you’re brighter than anybody else is — or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they’ve got you!

Victor Navasky writes of Stone that “although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.” How? Because as Stone said, “if you didn’t attend background briefings you weren’t bound by the ground rules; you could debrief correspondents who did, check out what they had been told, and as often as not reveal the lies for what they were.”

Contrast Stone’s attitude with that of the late Tim Russert, a truly awful journalist, who said at the trial of Scooter Libby, “When I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it’s my own policy our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission.” As Dan Froomkin points out:

According to Russert’s testimony yesterday at Libby’s trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

That’s not reporting, that’s enabling.

That’s how you treat your friends when you’re having an innocent chat, not the people you’re supposed to be holding accountable.

Glenn Greenwald describes how Richard Cohen excuses the actions of those politicians whom he considers friends, and adds:

Reflecting the vast diversity of our national media, Richard Cohen now joins fellow Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus, David Ignatius, David Broder and Fred Hiatt — as well as virtually every other Beltway journalist — in demanding that Bush officials not be prosecuted even if they committed felonies.

Why? Because they are all friends, the politicians, the journalists, and the powerful business interests, and they look out for each other.

Stone’s journalistic credo was summed up this way:

To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them.

It is hard to fight for those things if you socially hobnob with those who commit the very injustices you are against.

This is why journalists should refuse all invitations to socialize with politicians.

POST SCRIPT: Asian stereotypes

The Daily Show takes the opportunity of the rumor that the awful Sajay Gandhi Sanjay Gupta (Thanks to Kural for the correction) may be appointed Surgeon General by Obama to let Asif Mandvi do a hilarious riff on Asian-American ambitions.

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Comments

  1. kurL says

    Mano, it is Sanjay Gupta. Not that it makes this dismal choice any better. His middle initial is S as in shill.

  2. Joshua says

    I don’t know where to begin. One, the first rule of journalism, as I understand it, is “go where the story is”. Are you saying that Obama sitting down with a dozen big-name journalists isn’t a story?

    Two, either you or I.F. Stone is pulling some kind of absurdist joke: you can’t tell journalists to avoid presidential press conferences and to base their stories on the work of the guys who did go.

    Three, if one uses words like “awful” to describe Tim Russert, then one will quickly run out of negative adjectives to describe the many far worse journalists out there.

  3. says

    Joshua,

    The point is that politicians use access as a weapon against journalists. “If you say things the way I like, then I grant you exclusive interviews and advance your career. If you report things that displease me, I cut you off because there are plenty of others willing to serve as conduits.”

    So once a journalist agrees to go off-the-record, they become compromised. The reason why Tim Russert is properly described as awful is because he depended entirely on such access. In fact, Bush-Cheney deliberately used his show as one of the main ways to get misleading information to the public because they knew he would not challenge basic assumptions but merely play his silly gotcha games about trivialities. And so they were willing to repeatedly appear on his show and he got good access and ratings. But the public was not served well.

    Can anyone find any important story that Russert broke? During the run up to the Iraq war he got plenty of access to all the big players and what did he do with it? Nothing. They completely used him.

    There are of course worse journalists than Russert but that is missing the point, not to mention reveal how bad the situation is. The problem is that he was help up as a standard of great journalism and even his funeral was like that of a head-of-state, when he was at best a hack and at worst a useful idiot for clever politicians.

    What Stone realized was that politicians can say anything they like in press conferences and social venues and following those things is a waste of time because they will say one thing one day, another thing the next, and nothing is binding. What really matters are the official documents, minutes of meetings, the written orders, because the people who write those are putting them into the historical record.

    Stone would try and obtain those records, read them carefully carefully, and that is how he got many of his scoops, from official records, not from leaks from politicians.

    But that takes work and intelligence. It is much easier to go to cocktail parties and private dinners and report what is little more than the self-serving gossip put out by politicians.

  4. says

    Russell,

    Actually, I don’t have any problems with lobbyists as such. After all, people have the right, enshrined in the First Amendment, to petition the government and lobbyists do just that.

    What bothers me is the secrecy and money that is involved and the revolving doors between lawmakers and lobbyists. This creates a ‘buddy’ culture where the lobbyists with money and contacts dominate over others.

    Most people are not aware that when the government drafts rules and regulation to implement the laws it passes, lobbyists sit in with them and actually often draft the rules that govern the legislation, often to nullify the intent of the law or to put in loopholes. All this takes place below the radar, in back rooms, away from the spotlight. See this article for how it really works.

    I think that we need complete transparency so that all contacts with lobbyists are public information (which requires journalistic independence) and that they should be completely absent from the drafting of rules and laws.

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