Are You Compromised Over Hot Dogs?

Digby:

A lazy neighborhood bar-b-que in the village:

Many people think there’s nothing wrong with this. Everybody’s human, it’s fun for the kids. But do you think this sort of thing makes it easier or more difficult for journalists to maintain their independence?

Mike Brownfield at Heritage:

What does Vice President Joe Biden do on a hot summer day in Washington, DC, while a major environmental disaster has left the Gulf of Mexico in ruin?

Host a beach party for journalists at his house, of course! And go ahead and get the Democratic National Committee to pay for it, too. With squirt guns, watermelon, and the Vice President himself, sliding down a waterslide, how could he go wrong? (Nevermind the oil spill! Let’s get some sun!)

The party held last Friday underscores a troubling trend in the Obama administration – an insensitivity to the world around them and a lack of seriousness devoted to the task at hand.

[...]

Despite the coterie of reporters in attendance (CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Ed Henry, The New York Times’ David Sanger, NBC White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie, and The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder), news from the “on-the-record” event was relatively limited. What coverage came out of the party? Video of Vice President Biden sliding feet first down a waterslide, video of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel – a former member of the Israel Defense Force – wielding a Super Soaker at reporter Ambinder, and photos of the gala, all posted on Twitter.

Marc Ambinder:

Does an afternoon of leisure with senior administration officials violate journalistic ethics? To many, the self-evident answer is: “Absolutely.” I have a different view, although perhaps it’s a way to rationalize my own decision to attend the Bidens’ first beach party for journalists. Later today, I’ll lay out some thoughts about the ethics of all of this, but to whet appetites, here’s a bit of video I recorded. The players include the president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, David Sanger of the New York Times, and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Note the teasing banter between Emanuel and Sanger. (Note, too, that shortly after I shot this video, Emanuel sprayed me in the shirt with his Super Soaker. I have a picture of that, too.)

Glenn Greenwald:

I have no doubt that Ambinder — who promised that “later today, I’ll lay out some thoughts about the ethics of all of this” — is shortly going to explain to us how getting squirted in the face by Rahm (aside from being fun and deeply pleasurable for him) assists his intrepid journalistic endeavors by building relationships and cementing access (he also reported:  “Note, too, that shortly after I shot this video, Emanuel sprayed me in the shirt with his Super Soaker. I have a picture of that, too”).  All anyone has to do is to look at the relationship between the Washington press corps and the Washington political power structure (the former is an integral part of the latter) to know what an absurd and false rationalization that is (over the weekend, Ed Henry bravely took time out from his socializing with the Bidens to vehemently condemn the powerless Helen Thomas with language he would never, ever use for powerful political officials).  The face of the Washington press corps and the role it plays is perfectly embodied by David Gregory’s dancing to Karl Rove’s tune (both literally and in every other way), and it only gets worse by the day

Ambinder:

Accepting a few hours worth of hospitality from the Bidens may be just that — a chance for families to get together and enjoy each other’s company. The main attraction, aside from the Vice President and his family, were the rides for kids, the face painting, and the moon bounce. The adults chit-chatted on the upper part of the lawn while the kids — journalists’ kids, Biden’s family, the children of White House officials — chased each other around with water guns. It was a nice way to spend a hot Saturday afternoon.

But these aren’t ordinary afternoons, and the very idea that a journalist would accept a slice of watermelon from the Vice President strikes many a critical activist as criminally insane — an example of the cozy relationships that exist between journalists and their sources, an example of how the oppositional role of the press has been compromised by people in power.
Well, yes. The relationships can be cordial, occasionally cozy, and they can simultaneously be professional and skeptical. Indeed, has there ever been a time when journalists and the political establishment have been MORE skeptical about each other?
I take this argument to heart: journalists worthy of the name ought to be on duty 24 hours a day, and in an ideal world, any opportunity to interact with administration officials should be an opportunity to grill those officials on any range of subjects.
Journalists, if they’re good for anything, should use whatever access they have to consistently and relentless pressure powerful interests. We’re at war; the government is detaining people indefinitely; there’s a huge oil spill in the gulf; there are better things to do.
But a bunch of really good, hardened, news-breaking, interest-accountable holding reporters are in fact able to share more comfortable moments with people they cover. For the record, the event was paid for by the Democratic National Committee, not by taxpayers.  There was no additional Secret Service presence needed, so I don’t think the afternoon produced any hidden costs to the government.
Am I fatally compromised?

Greenwald updates his original post:

Ambinder has posted his explanation/justification here, and, as it speaks (loudly and clearly) for itself, I’m content to let everyone read it and decide for themselves what they think.  To be clear:  the issue isn’t Ambinder, who does some good reporting and deserves credit for candidly writing about these events even knowing he’ll be criticized (that’s better than concealing them).  The issue is the relationship between the press corps and political power which these events reveal (here’s an example of the type of event the Bush White House would hold and the controversy created).

Clive Crook:

Greenwald has a point. Ed Henry’s schoolgirl tweets as Rahm Emanuel chased him round the garden made me wince. Dignity of the profession aside, though, the rules of engagement Greenwald seems to advocate would make a lot of good journalism impossible.

The problem is where to draw the line. With an Internet connection, much useful reporting and commentary can be done from your desk, using public material: no commingling required. But to uncover private information, you need sources. Socializing at events like Biden’s is an opportunity to develop some.

When somebody gives you private information, there is always a danger you will be misled (because your source has an agenda). Or you might be compromised by a sense of obligation or a desire to keep the channel open so you can go back for more. Socializing with sources, off-the-record interviews, on-the-record interviews, privileged access to press briefings all create this tension to some degree. To meet Greenwald’s standard of rigor, you would never put yourself in this position.

Getting too friendly with government officials is a particular danger — as any good journalist is aware. But the issue also comes up with non-government sources. They too have agendas. The same risks of obligation, dependence, and distorted judgment arise. The difference between a good journalist and a bad one is not whether you expose yourself to that danger but whether you are aware of it and check yourself for bias. Journalists should be skeptics. So should readers. They must decide for themselves whether a writer is thinking independently, ventilating prejudices, or channeling somebody else’s talking-points. I get a better sense of that from reading the copy than from knowing whether the writer attended a party.

Greenwald demands skepticism toward those in power — which any good journalist must have — but then confuses this with implacable hostility. They are not the same. The job of a reporter is to question, understand, and inform. You need a vigorous skepticism to do this. But unreasoning hostility is as inimical to understanding as blind deference.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Marc, like most of his colleagues, argues that he has not lost a whit of skepticism toward the White House. But the better question is whether White House media has lost (or ever even had) any skepticism toward itself. Marc goes on to note several stories he’s working that the administration doesn’t like. But likely the peril is much smaller and less knowable. Likely it originates in the kind of twisted loyalties that sprout up when your sources become your friends.
Consumers of news should ask themselves a very simple question when they see these sorts of events: What is the White House’s agenda? What is their interest in inviting a gaggle of journalists and their families over for a party? What are they trying to achieve?
By the logic of the  press corps, these White House social events have no real effect on the news narrative. I find that interesting. There are some very smart people in the the White House. It would seem that by now they would know their soirée press strategy has been a miserable failure. And yet they press on. I wonder why?

James Joyner:

Recall that the journalists of the 1930s and 1940s conspired to hide from the American public the fact that Franklin Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair.  And their 1960s successors didn’t think John Kennedy’s extra-marital affairs counted among all the news that was fit to print.

Do modern day journalists and politicians have a symbiotic relationship?   Of course.  Do reporters love to rub elbows with the Washington glitterati?  You betcha.  But it was always thus.

It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise.  Effective political reporters require constant access to policymakers.   They will naturally develop warm personal relationships with some of their sources and hold others in some contempt, with shades of gray in between.  That’s just the nature of human interaction.

Further, as Ambinder notes, reporters — himself included — are probably more cynical than at any point in history.  So, too, is the American public.

That’s not surprising.   The combination of 24/7 coverage and competition from a vast variety of outlets makes keeping a lid on sordid details next to impossible.   Every lie and indiscretion committed by a politician of any significant visibility will inevitably be made public.

Come to think of it, the same is true of slipshod reporting.  With an army of bloggers out here dissecting every bit of news coverage, mistakes, sloppiness, deception, and whatnot that would previously have gone unnoticed — or, worse, garnering prestigious prizes — now get exposed almost immediately.

So, no, we don’t need more crabby reporters with chips on their shoulder or a moratorium on water gun fights with Rahm Emanuel.

Matthew Yglesias:

At any rate, journalistic ethics is just the standards of conduct that journalists do in practice hold themselves to and it’s clear that attending parties hosted by the powerful officials they’re nominally covering is more-or-less par for the course.

The only non-obvious thing I would add to this is that not only do reporters get captured by their sources, but important officials come to be unduly concerned about the press coverage they get. It’s in the two-way nature of the dysfunctional dynamic that the tempests in teapots that plague the Beltway are born. Reporters spend too much time writing up gossipy items, and public officials spend too much time reading them and courting the press. Everyone would be better off trying to think harder about what’s really important and/or socializing with their actual friends.

Michael Triplett at Mediaite:

Maybe Yglesias’ bosses at Obama’s favorite think tank and farm team for the administration–the Center for American Progress–can mention that next time they are invited to a State Dinner.

It is a perennial question that arises every year during press dinner season–capped by the White House Correspondents Dinner–where people wonder whether reporters should be yukking it up with the president and members of Congress in the evening after being adversaries during the day. The New York Times–whose staff was at the Biden beach party–does not participate in nerd prom.

(Full disclosure.  During the Bush administration, I attended four “nerd proms” and took mid-level members of the administration at least twice.  I met Justice Antonin Scalia once and learned that my guest had a weakness for the Food Network. Alas, I’ve never been to the White House or the Vice President’s House, except on a tour.)

So who wins between Ambinder and Greenwald?  Arguably, it’s a draw.

Greenwald is rightly concerned that these kinds of cozy events look bad for people who think journalists shouldn’t be so friendly with the people they cover.  It does give the appearance of bias and impropriety and appearances are as big a worry as actual bias and impropriety.  In addition, Greenwald is right to be concerned that journalists can become so enamored by the attention from D.C.’s ruling class that they may fail to ask the tough questions for fear of not getting an invite to the next hoedown.

On the other hand, the idea that Ambinder or any reporter is suddenly going to say nice things about Emanuel and Biden just because they noshed hot dogs together on a hot, June Saturday doesn’t really understand how journalism or Washington works. Just as attorneys can be civil with opposing counsel, journalists can be civil with the people they cover without it meaning they won’t ask hard questions the next day.

Of course, relationships can become too close and journalists can be too friendly with the people they cover.  But a single beach party with the kids or an evening in tuxedos and evening dresses with administration officials isn’t likely going to compromise the adversarial relationship between journalists and the people they cover.

Would journalists be better off if they never had friendly interactions with the people they cover? If Ambinder runs into Emanuel at Ben’s Chili Bowl, is he supposed to turn on his heels lest it be viewed as too friendly an interaction? Where exactly is the line?

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