Access Journalism — Business As Usual?
Glenn Greenwald has been rightfully indignant about the Obama DoJ’s use of Bush’s "state secrets" argument to cover up charges of rendition and torture. The NY Times this morning says "It was as if last month’s inauguration had never occurred…..Voters have good reason to feel betrayed if they took Mr. Obama seriously on the campaign trail when he criticized the Bush administration’s tactic of stretching the state-secrets privilege to get lawsuits tossed out of court."
But Bush’s "state secrets" claims aren’t the only White House holdovers. Glenn also singles out Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic today for being a DC stenographer whose idea of "reporting" is calling up administration sources, granting them anonymity without cause, and then writing it up mindlessly without critique or context:
What possible justification is there for granting administration officials anonymity to explain why they are embracing a Bush-era weapon that they have long criticized? And why does an administration swearing great levels of transparency and accountability — and vowing to use secrecy only when absolutely necessary — need to hide behind a wall of anonymity in order to explain why they did what they did here? Why can’t they attach their names to this explanation, so that they can be questioned about it and held accountable?
Why would he do that? Well, possibly because that’s the only way they’ll talk to him — or anyone else. New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston has also written about this "business as usual" quality of White House press relations:
My questions to LaBolt and Singh prompted a return phone call the next day from Nick Shapiro, who spelled his name, but had to be prodded several times to give his job title: assistant press secretary.
During our brief conversation, Shapiro, like LaBolt (whose name Shapiro did not recognize), started one sentence with “off the record.” Told that the journalist grants the privilege, and that none would be granted here, Shapiro expressed surprise. His surprise was double-barreled, at both the idea that the reporter issues any privilege and that any reporter would decline to talk “off the record.”
The reportorial practice of letting government officials speak without taking responsibility for their words has been an issue with the public and is being questioned now by some journalists, as shown by this article from Slate’s Jack Shafer.
Questions about whether Shapiro knows the difference between off-the-record, background, deep background, and on-the-record did not get asked, because Shapiro made it clear he had no interest in answering anything about how the Obama press secretary’s office is operating and what its tone will be. He said questions should be submitted in writing by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I sent Shapiro an e-mail outlining the contours of what would be covered in an interview, but have not received a response as of this writing, the following day.
Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter whose book, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense [and Stick You with the Bill] is indispensible for anyone wanting to understand how the taxation and legislative system has been gamed to favor the rich. He’s a superb journalist and
sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s still employed at the Times. (note: Johnston has left the NYT.) An administration interested in transparency should be ecstatic about working with him.
But what is going on right now in the world of DC journalism finds its most naked expression in Ambinder’s piece, though I’ve seen other glaring examples of late — journalists are scrambling for who gets "access" to the White House. So there’s no end to the bullshit they’ll write to ingratiate themselves to potential sources, or the inconvenient facts they’ll edit out in order to be the new Bob Woodward. (Though Ambinder does deserve some praise on this front — he wrote what everyone else knows but isn’t saying about White House plans: "encouragement of moderate Democrats," "entitlement reform" and "standing up to Speaker Pelosi.")
You can see it in the horror with which the traditional media is responding to Sam Stein getting called on at the President’s press conference — there are rules, there is a pecking order, and This Is Not How It’s Done. While it’s great Sam got recognized — he’s a really good journalist and he asked a critical question — it’s not much more than "window dressing" if the day-to-day interaction with the press stays the same as it did during the Bush years. And with Rahm managing the relations between the White House and the media these days, it looks like that’s exactly what’s happening.
Update: And the stenography continues: Ambinder calls back his "administration sources" so they can respond to Glenn but neither names him nor links to him. "They’re sensitive to the politics of the case, but they’re not motivated by what civil libertarians may write on their blogs." The administration people don’t want you at the slumber party Glenn Greenwald, and they don’t give anonymous quotes to you, Glenn Greenwald, and they certainly aren’t going to RESPOND to you, Glenn Greenwald, well okay they DID and Ambinder just wrote PARAGRAPHS about it but they are going to just turn their backs and pretend you’re not there. Feh.