A Conversation with a White House Journalist
So I have a friend who is a Real, Live MSM Journalist. He gets to be part of the White House Gaggle, and is also a long time blog reader. He and I have had many conversations about the press, the era of Bush, and blogs, and one thing we agree upon is that there should be more of a two way conversation between bloggers/citizen journalists and the paid members of the mainstream press. In that spirit, here is the first of what I hope be to be series of conversations between bloggers and journalists. Obviously, he speaks for himself and I don't agree with everything he says. Some of the questions refer to previous conversations we've had privately. Mr. Knox has agreed to come by and answer questions in the comments, give him a little time to respond as he's a busy guy. The AFP journalists will soon have their own blog, so let's all give him a chance to practice with the rabid lambs.
Olivier Knox: At the outset, I should emphasize that I only speak for myself, not for my colleagues. Please, if I don't answer something, don't assume I'm ducking the question. Just follow up. I will make a good faith effort to answer any serious question sent to Olivier.KNOX@afp.com Just put "Media Question" in the subject line.
Chicago Dyke: You say that I and other bloggers are "dead wrong" in how we critique and understand what MSM access (to politicians and newsmakers) is all about. Tell readers more about this. How does access work? Does the desire for regular or increased access ever compromise the product (that is, what is written about those to whom you've acheived access)?
Knox:"Dead wrong" was the frustration talking. I think that you guys sometimes use "access" and "chumminess" and "social contact with sources" interchangeably, indiscriminately.
I do have periodic social interaction with some of the folks I cover: Lunches, dinners, drinks, coffees. But these are not really social events. They're off the record, for the most part, but the reporter/source dance continues. It is extremely rare not to ask, even hound, these folks for information. It is also undeniable that these kinds of outings can help build trust between reporters and sources. It may mean that so-and-so picks up the phone, or returns the call, or the email, a bit more quickly. It may mean that I get a heads-up about something I'm interested in before it gets formally announced. There really isn't much of a quo for that quid, though. I think I'm probably more likely to listen to a source scream at me about something if I respect their opinion on, say, blogs.
When I talk about "access," I mean, broadly, "getting an unfiltered opportunity to see and hear from the people I cover, and preferably getting to ask them questions." The most important aspect here is "unfiltered." Very often, we settle for getting what are called "readouts" of telephone calls or meetings. So Tony Snow might summarize a Bush/Pelosi meeting that he attended. Sometimes, we hear from someone who wasn't in the meeting who heard from someone in the meeting. Sometimes, these folks will only speak on condition that they be identified only as "an administration official." (more on this little dance later, I suspect).
You can see why we'd want more "access" to the people making the decisions, attending the meetings, etc. You want to get your information from the people most closely concerned with the decision, the policy, the event that you're covering. Does that make sense?
The question of compromise is an excellent one, in fact it's really the central criticism here. Speaking only for myself, I cannot think of a time when I reported something in a flattering light, or delayed a piece, or did anything like that, for access to a source or to stay in their good graces. I get paid for news, not for sources to like me. I'm sure my colleagues would say the same thing. Usually, though, the trade-off is more implicit, like "beat-sweeteners," puffy profiles of new appointees, recently promoted aides, and the like. Everyone reading this blog has seen them, at one time or another. I don't do that much, because I don't think that they pay off. The most frequent trade-off is granting anonymity, which has its not-insignificant problems.
Q : Many bloggers write of how the press fails to understand the blogger critique of the press. Joe Klein is a perfect example, and regular target of bloggers, usually for "setting up straw men" instead of answering the questions bloggers ask about how he acheives his perspective on the issues of the day, and of how he represents/remembers his past assertions/writing. Tell us what you and your peers think of the blogger critique of how the modern press functions.
A: I think that you overestimate how much my colleagues read blogs. Lack of familiarity has bred contempt, mostly undue. But I'd like you to be a bit more specific about the critique. I don’t see just one critique out there.
I can tell you what drives me nuts about some of the things I read -- with the caveat that this is a silly exercise, because I'm about to paint a stereotype that doesn't apply even to a majority of bloggy criticism.
On the Right, I'm driven nuts by the notion that what my spouse does or did professionally means that my fair coverage of the current Something Bad for Bush is a biased hit piece, and the idea that because some percentage of reporters voted for Clinton in 1992 means, all reporting out of Iraq is really the hallucinations of Marxist seditionists. On the Left, I'm driven nuts by the notion that my failure to include Event X while writing about the current Something Bad For Bush is clear evidence of being a toadie for Karl Rove, and that my failure to jump up at a press conference and tell Bush he has blood on his hands means that I'm just another cog in the GOP machine. On both sides, it drives me crazy that people equate explaining with defending. On both sides, it drives me crazy to see plain-jane mistakes get dressed up as darkly motivated attacks.
The thing is, we complain about our industry too. We complain about trends, developments, failings, failures, structural problems, individual lapses, etc. And you'd recognize a lot of bloggy complaints among our own complaints. It is not always clear that when bloggers complain about the things that we complain about that you’re doing it because you want a better press corps.
I would ask any blogger who is interested in this stuff to please read The Boys on The Bus.
Q: Expanding on that, what do you think of the very regular blogger critique of the press, that it is often little more than a stenography service for the Republican party? Many bloggers have written about how journalists regularly fail to ask critical questions of republican officials, of how frequently the republican perspective/opinion on an issue is presented as fact, and of how frequently republican perspectives receive all or most of the space in a column, without proper democratic or opposition perspective to balance them.is this critique valid?
A: Valid across the board? No. Valid some of the time? Sure.
First off, your counterparts on the other side would fire back: "If that's all true, why does news the media talk about abortion 'rights' but gun 'control'?" They'd ask why the Washington Post did a hefty series on the ins and outs of the Bush fundraising machine and did no equivalent for Kerry. Things like that. I'm not saying that "we tick off both sides" means we're doing a good job.
Second, I personally have skipped opportunities to ask critical questions of Republican officials because I was working on a piece unrelated to said critical questions. If I'm writing about Iran, I'm not going to ask a tough question on immigration, for instance. And I personally have probably produced a light piece on Topic X when a tough piece on Topic D might have been more helpful to the republic.
Don't forget that a lot of news coverage is geared to what we perceive to be the needs and wants of our editors, our audiences, etc. We're a business that has a mission. You can't ignore either side of that. I'll give you an example: While we have a sizeable viewership in the United States, most of our readers are overseas. That means I have to say things like "Bush, who seeks a second four-year term..." even though that looks ridiculous to US eyes. That also means that I am much more focused on US foreign policy than on domestic policy. I may be the only reporter who ever writes about the regular presidential waiver that delays moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, for instance.
Third, I really have to unlearn this annoying habit of numbering my paragraphs. But I would add that there are a few structural things that tick me off, like having a straight-ahead MSM news reporter paired with a party activist on a talk show as though this were balance. Phooey.
The bottom line is that I’d have to see a specific story to assess it. I have definitely seen some that deserve this criticism.
Q: Many bloggers regularly complain about sloppy technique in place of proper journalism. it is not difficult to find constructions like "some say" and "unnamed officials" applied throughout the MSM's product. bloggers also repeatedly complain of the use of straw men, a lack of sound reasoning, and other intellectually lazy methods in place of solid, investigative and critical reporting. what do you think of today's standards in journalism?
A: Well, "some say" (or "critics say," or "many bloggers complain") can be lazy, or it can be useful, accurate shorthand. A good reporter, without space/time constraints, may have an actual person attached to the idea in the next paragraph. But I don't really have a problem with this unless the "some say" is factually incorrect, or a straw man.
Remember, space and time are at a premium, so shorthand often wins. I would tell you that "many reporters regularly complain about sloppy technique in place of proper journalism." Including the journalists who produce the sloppy pieces. There are times when you have one tenth of the time you need to do the job right, but you have to feed the beast. Actually, that happens all the time.
Is there overuse of what we call "background" sources? Yes, I think so. I don't think that this is necessarily sloppy, though, or a failure of journalism. Anonymity is sometimes the only way to get information. It makes it hard on our readers, who really only have my say-so that I spoke to "a senior administration official," and of course it can let that person off the hook. And sometimes it's idiotic, like when what they're passing along is totally insipid. But some of these folks would lose their jobs if they spoke on the record, even about what the president ate for lunch.
You didn’t ask this, but I see it all the time, so I’m going to answer it: Some of our liberal critics say that we should burn sources if they lie to us. In other words, if that senior administration official feeds us bullsh*t, we reveal who it was. The problem with this is that you can almost never be sure whether that source knowingly passed along an untruth, or whether they had bad or incomplete intel and passed it along in good faith. What happens if you burn them is that other sources will assume, correctly, that they cannot trust you for fear of retaliation if they simply get something wrong. In the day-to-day competition to get the news first, you lose.
It definitely annoys me to see use of anonymous sources for attack purposes. (Case in point, Kerry "looks French." WTF? I laughed, yes, but wow, what a cheap shot).
If there's a background briefing on an issue that my audience cares a lot about, and I walk out but my competitor stays and gets something good, I'm screwed. So I'm not going to walk out. Otherwise, in the day-to-day competition to get the news first, I lose.
I go a little nuts in front of most political talk shows, I go a little nuts in front of quotes like "the White House official, who spoke on condition he not be named, said Bush was confident, focused, manly, robust." I go a little nuts in front of editorials that ignore the bulk of a publication's reporting (but I almost never read editorials). And this question doesn't really touch on more institutional problems like the media's tendency to to pack journalism, the media's fondness for a "narrative," etc.
In general terms, I would say that with the exception of a few staggering failures, and a lot of minor daily snags, we do well.
Q: A regular complaint of bloggers is that the beltway press is too cozy, and has too many personal relationships with the people on whom they report. Some members of the press have turned this critique into evidence that bloggers are essentially a jealous and petty bunch of amateurs who don't understand how a working press must function. do you think that the beltway press maintains a professional distance from politicians?
A: My best "friends" among my sources are almost exclusively people with whom I disagree vehemently. And, more to the point, people with whom I have actually disagreed in person. The thing is, they know that however much I hate policy X, I'm going to give it fair coverage. (I don't say "objective" because that's come to mean "Senator Z says the Moon is made of cheese. Critics say this is untrue." That's idiotic.). Mind you, I'm not a bold-face "name," so my distance from the top folks is not really a choice, and therefore not really a virtue. I don't think that reporters, by and large, have excessively cozy relationships with the people they cover.
I would never would call bloggers "essentially a jealous and petty bunch of amateurs who don't understand how a working press must function." I think that some accusations are pointlessly personal, and others also deeply unfair. I think you guys misunderstand the role of social interaction between reporters and sources, problematic as it can be sometimes. And there's no doubt that the overwhelming majority of bloggers don't know the nuts and bolts of MSM political reporting.
The thing is, that doesn't usually matter.
You don't need to know that gaggles are off-camera, on the record briefings, usually held in the morning, to know that Story X is wildly inaccurate, unfair, arcane, a re-hash of Story M, etc. You don't need to know that social mixing among reporters and the people their cover is a good way to build trust that can benefit news consumers to know that giving someone anonymity for a cheap shot is unreasonable.
But if you’re going to post a long blog screed on how the White House is suppressing the gaggle transcript and the evil evil MSM isn’t saying anything because they don’t want to endanger the Correspondents Association dinner, maybe it would be useful to know that the gaggle transcript is only released if the president is travelling or the gaggle is the only briefing of the day. And I think it would be helpful if we could do a "take a blogger to work" day to show you the logistical constraints we face, and more importantly to answer questions.
I don’t think that you’d like us any more than you do, since understanding something doesn’t equate to liking it. But I think you might not be quite so glib or quite so eager to assign dark motives where "he goofed" is the explanation.
Q: I believe that one role I play as a blogger is to cover stories that are ignored or under reported in the MSM. I believe that people want to and should know of the many details of under reported events, such as those happening in Afghanistan, or in current congressional oversight hearings. Tell us about the process by which stories are selected for papers and news services, and what you think of the structure and content of what is found in the MSM.
A: To me, never are bloggers more useful or impressive than when they take on that combined assignment editor/reporter/publisher role on overlooked stories. Or new stories. But you asked about the MSM.
I hate that we feel the need to cover the waterskiing squirrel (annually) or the latest iota of news from the Anna Nicole story, or even the "ha, ha, the president said a funny word" stuff. I hate that the A Certain Powerful Paper can publish a story done weeks before by another outlet and yet still suddenly set the agenda for national news. I hate that reporters come under pressure to match "bigger" outlets not just in factual reporting but in tone.
In terms of selection, every outlet is different, and I can't speak even vaguely authoritatively on this. There are news drivers: The wires (like the Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg, and my shop), the New York Times, and any TV network that breaks news. Every outlet has a structure for sifting through the competition and the drivers and figuring out what the story is, where it's going next, and which reporter needs to cover it. Then, throughout the day, the bosses decide what "play" the story should get. I not sure this is what you’re asking, though.
Q: Bloggers are beginning to organize into coherent and consistent news producing entities. Some bloggers, such as myself, have an avowed goal of eventually replacing the traditional media, by producing a superior product and maintaining a degree of freedom of critique and expression that wedon't believe is found in the MSM today. Some bloggers have gone as far asto write on "jealousy" in the traditional press of the blogosphere. Do you believe members of the press feel threatened or jealous of the blogosphere? Do you see the blogosphere as capable of replacing the traditional media?
A: For individual news consumers? Sure. They clearly already have. But for the most part you're not "replacing" the MSM because most of you still use the news that we report. That's changing, because newsmakers are increasingly going to blogs to talk, which means that we have to pay attention (what if Obama tells Kos he'll go best of three falls with Hillary for the nomination?) and because you guys are getting smarter about pooling resources.
The barriers to entry in the news market are vanishing. Video? You have cheap digital cameras and awesome editing software to create a video for online dissemination. Photos? High-resolution digital cameras. Text? You're kidding, right? Sound? Please. Your biggest material barrier, and it's not insuperable, is that the mainstream media right now has more cash and therefore a greater ability to send people where the news is. Well, that, and the fact that the MSM still draws more eyeballs and that some of them will never go blog.
I don't see why, in this increasingly fragmented news market, you guys can't carve out a big niche. But I have a problem with "replace" because I think many consumers have basic tastes - morning TV news, drive-time radio, evening TV local news - and therefore won't care that you attended that GAO hearing. Others are getting their news from a multiplicity of sources - blogs, newspaper sites, radio, primary sources, C-SPAN - and therefore you won't be "replacing" the MSM. Not all of it, anyway. I'll tell you what, though: I'd hate to own a mid-sized magazine of opinion right now.
I have yet to meet MSM reporters who feel threatened by independent political blogs, though some envy your freedom from the restrictions we face. Some resent that you attack them personally, even when they've suffered far worse at the hands of MSM figures. (I've actually been personally threatened, but not in the sense that you mean.) If you catch me making a factual mistake, and you email me a clear, polite message, I’ll be embarrassed but I’ll probably go fix it. If your point is in paragraph three, after a photoshopped photo of me doing unspeakable things to Karl Rove, with the caption "Eat hot death, you media wh*re!" you’re getting the delete button immediately.
But watch: Many mainstream outlets are now allowing/requiring blogs by their reporters. We're still trying to figure out that balancing act - can I really be obnoxious in my blog and not lose credibility in my news story? Why is my blog getting more viewers than my story?
Q: Tell us about your average day, what you do, who speaks with you, and how you produce your final product.
A: This is a very basic but excellent question. I'll leave out some details ("...then it's time to make S'mores for Russert!") and I have to serve up the cliche that we don't really have "average" days, but I can sketch out the highlights. I get to work at about 8:15 am. I follow the gaggle (the morning off-camera White House briefing). I follow the midday briefing. Throughout the day, I follow any other news events - speeches, congressional visitors at the White House, world leader visits, legislation signing, written statements commending X and denouncing Y. I keep track of the other moving parts in stories that I'm doing (like, did the Dems react to Snow's comment on Iraq?). I get White House input to stories our other reporters are doing. I make calls to sources on the big stories. And I make calls related to about a half-dozen things I'm working on that don't have an urgent news angle. I’m in constant contact with the bosses. I'm usually done around by 7-7:30 pm on a moderate news day, maybe 10 pm on a heavy news day. I travel for work maybe two/three months out of the year, more in an election year.
Q: Tell us about the political inclinations of yourself and your peers, you may speak generally if you want to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
A: Crap. I knew this was coming and I don't have a good answer. This stuff is somewhat taboo among us, because it is so often used to dismiss our work. We don't really talk about it, even among ourselves. We do discuss the parties' strategies, individual sources, interesting trends, and the like. But I've never heard "well, I'm a Larouchian, so..." I tend to take the view, probably not supported by any major dictionary, that my opinion is my opinion, and only if it gets into the story can you talk about "bias."
Q: Tell us the funniest or most horrifying moment in your role as a journalist in the era of Bush.
A: With two years left, this would be folly.
You didn't ask this, but I'm answering it anyway. "What do you do?"
When AFP hired me in 1996, my new boss told me that the news is "whatever reduces uncertainty." I agree. That's my job, that's my aspiration. That's the source of institutional tension between reporters and organizations or individuals who use uncertainty to their advantage.
Q: Tell us what you know about "journalist" Jeff Gannon, who not only got to ask questions in the White House gaggle, but was also a male prostitute, and regular visitor to the White House after dark.
A: I'm not sure what I can contribute to La saga Gannon. I have to tread a bit lightly on the security aspects because I'm not sure what I can and can't say about the arrangements here. Still, there's a lot here.
Let's start with the logisitical stuff. First: The White House Correspondents Association doesn't 'vet' reporters. The vetting process occurs on Capitol Hill. If you can get a press pass up there, then you can apply for a White House credential -- also known as a "hard pass." This is a security document, not a press document. Hard passes require a Secret Service background check.
As you know, he couldn't get a Congressional pass: He did not meet their criteria. So he wasn't eligible to apply for a hard pass, which also means that he did not undergo the lengthy background check.
But he got into the White House anyway. How, you ask?
Well, if you're a reporter, you can actually get in before you get a hard pass. For example, I got in for months before I had mine (if memory serves, it took about 9 months). You can be "cleared" for one-day access by the White House. When this happens, you get a one-day pass, which is also a security document (I keep mentioning this because it's relevant). What I don't understand to this day is 1. How he got cleared in day-by-day over such a long period of time, without applying for a hard pass. 2. How he got cleared in with no apparent difficulty when it took a lot of work for the fishbowldc blogger to get in. Professionally, I have nothing I can report. Personally, I can say that I suspect pressure from the higher ups. I know that the junior press office staff disliked him intensely. I know that everyone in the press office knew who he was (in the "that's Jeff Gannon from Talon News" way). That's not always true.
Now, here's where I think I can help a little. No, he wasn't in the White House press pool. There are basically two pools you guys need to know about. There's the in-house pool (think Oval Office or Cabinet Room appearances) and the travel pool (the much smaller bunch that goes practically everywhere with him). Gannon/Guckert was in neither. But he did have access to the briefing room. He also did not travel to Texas. Some folks found a "Jeff" in transcripts of Crawford briefings and jumped to conclusions. But that was Jeff Goldman of CBS, not Gannon.
No, it's not clear that he overnighted. It's possible to leave the White House grounds without leaving a record that you left. I don't want to go into the details except to say that while it's impossible to get into the White House without leaving a record, it's relatively easy to leave without leaving a record, either deliberately or otherwise.
I was unaware (per your email) that he had signed in at night. Just to add a data point, you can get into the WH anytime that the press briefing room is open and/or anytime the president has a public event. So a prime-time press conference, for instance.
About his role in the briefing room. I am in a small minority of reporters who think that it's entirely appropriate to ask a loaded question, or a question with an incredibly flawed/biased premise, or a question that is a word-for-word restatement of a political player's official statement, or a softball. Why? Because you're trying to pry information from the person at the podium. If they challenge a premise, that can be useful. If they counter with their own premise (say, a different understanding of the underlying facts), that can be useful. And softballs can generate some of the most interesting answers (remember John Dickeron's question about "name a mistake you made"? If the President had had an answer to that, you'd be mocking that as a softball).
And, of course, a direct response to criticism can be useful as well. I had no problem with his loaded questions, even his famous Reid and Clinton have "divorced themselves from reality" question. That could have generated an interesting answer. It didn't (and the President hated the question). Questions do not necessarily reflect the personal views of the questioner (certainly they do not in my case. I don't think I'm giving away the farm here, but I've asked loaded questions not aimed at getting a direct answer so much as getting the spokesperson to challenge "my" premise).
I was less fond of his passive-aggressive grandstanding before and after the briefings, when he would stand near some of us and loudly declare (to no-one in particular) that he was there to counter the traitorous mainstream media. And I had zero respect for what I saw of his output. Cutting and pasting a White House statement or fact sheet can be useful for readers, but you shouldn't pretend that it's more than it is.
To sum up, I'd still like to know how he kept getting cleared in easily while bloggers whose output was more regular and more clearly "reporting" did not. I don't think he should have been allowed in -- not because of his opinions or the quality of his questions, but on the basis that he wasn't a journalist. The doors have to stay open to legitimate journalists from across the spectrum (including from opinion magazines and web sites). But not to folks who are only there because they can get on camera spouting off.
UPDATE The Fellows of The Mighty Corrente Building extend the right hand of good fellowship to the rabid fan base of The Man in the Grey Turtleneck (to which we also belong. Check out the wet bar. Tell 'em the guy under the stairs sent you. --Lambert