Monday, March 10, 2008

McCain BBQ and Our Insipid Press Redux

Members of the press working hard on the job.
(This picture comes from Meghan McCain's blog and is copyright Heather Brand. I'm claiming fair use -- sue me.)

More on Ethics

In the first part of this two-part series I covered the ethics of the situation, but there are a few more things to say on the subject before I move on. The Columbia Journalism Review has a good piece on the subject, Hold the Sauce:

There was this just-wait-til-Wednesday warning at the end of Michael D. Shear’s Post piece: “The lighthearted mood is likely to fade quickly if [McCain] gets enough delegates to lay claim to his party’s nomination in contests in Texas and Ohio on Tuesday. As the nominee, he will almost certainly be on, rather than overseeing, the grill.

And who will be “overseeing” that “grill?” These same rib-stained reporters?

McCainBlogette has a video of the event up. And now so do I.

This should further disabuse readers of the notion that there was any real journalistic purpose to the event.

Press Servility and the All Powerful Access

Stephen Colbert, speaking at the White House Correspondent Dinner:

Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know--fiction.

We like to imagine that our press is fiercely independent but "cowed" and "servile" are usually much better descriptors. At the McCain BBQ the press was not allowed to record video or audio or to take pictures. And by "not allowed" I mean they were asked and meekly acquiesced. The BBQ was an "on the record" event yet all of the media (images, video) to come out of the event has come out on McCainBlogette. The press write ups of the event are nearly indistinguishable from the official PR as well. In essence the reporters served as rented PR people, reporting what McCain wanted them to and not reporting what he didn't want them to.

There is something fundamentally wrong when members of the press, in order to gain supposedly all-important access, agree to not use the tools of their trade or even to do their jobs at all. That's exactly the opposite of fiercely independent, our political press is fiercely dependent on access and will do anything to maintain it.

More on the Church of Access

I caught Tucker Carlson bleating about the importance of access in the context of the Samantha Powers' "monster" comment regarding Clinton and the audacity of the British press to report the truth. So did Glenn Greenwald, who provides a transcript and analysis.

Tucker Carlson: Right. But I mean, since journalistic standards in Great Britain are so much dramatically lower than they are here, it's a little much being lectured on journalistic ethics by a reporter from the "Scotsman," but I wonder if you could just explain what you think the effect is on the relationship between the press and the powerful. People don't talk to you when you go out of your way to hurt them as you did in this piece.

Don't you think that hurts the rest of us in our effort to get to the truth from the principals in these campaigns?
[...later segment...]

Lanny Davis: Most reporters in the U.S. would give you a break. That reporter...didn't seem to understand that you lose sources if you burn someone like that.

This is a very ordinary attitude made explicit by Carlson and Davis: that preserving sources is more important than reporting the truth. The more sources you cultivate the more stuff you can report -- except of course for stuff the sources don't want you to report. You mustn't report that!

Maintaining contacts is a part of journalism, but its status has been elevated to godhood because it appeals to laziness. Maintain a wide net of sources and reporting is no different from writing a gossip column. Talk to one of your sources (or have them talk to you), write down what they said (often attributing them anonymously), and voila, there's your next article on Iranian IEDs or Saddam's anthrax.

McCain's "straight talk express" is a tour bus and the press his groupies. They know if they ask the wrong thing, press too hard or whip out cameras they might stop riding on the bus and stop getting called on and stop attending picnics. So their solution is to play by the rules set out for them by the person they are supposed to be covering.

Freedom of the press is one of our most cherished rights. Yet our press could not care less, eagerly trading that freedom away in return for chumminess and rides on a tire swing. (Watch the video)

Next Time

This post was getting too long, next time I'll get into the press coverage of "character" issues. That should conclude the series on the McCain BBQ and press behavior, at least for now.

Hastily Added Addendum

Crooks and Liars has more on access and McCain reporting. Anna Marie Cox, Howard Kurtz and others discuss how reporters covering McCain get so much wonderful access that they become "part of the bubble, part of the [McCain] team." Everyone agrees that because of their access the press treats McCain better, does not report on some of his negative behavior, and that it's only people outside of "the bubble" that confront him on falsehoods. According to Cox:

It's almost always someone who's not -- who, hasn't been with the campaign, you know, through it all, that is going to make a call that makes him look bad.

That appears to be a damning indictment but everyone is all smiles, as if entirely oblivious to the words coming out of their mouths and what their role as journalists is supposed to be. For them becoming part of "the team" and going easy on McCain is perfectly acceptable; it's the campaign outsiders like Bumiller who mistakenly believe that reporting is different from public relations.

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