The e-mail folders this week were jammed with comments and inquiries about 1) The Post’s economic policy blogger, Ezra Klein, and his supposed “briefing” to Senate Democratic staffers; and 2) a Post reporter’s use of Twitter to find “dirt” on GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.
Let’s go to Klein first, one of the most popular of all of The Post’s bloggers and a man with 110,000 Twitter followers. Klein is a hybrid journalist: he comments, he reports, he takes positions on issues of public policy. He’s not on the editorial pages but in the news pages.
This makes reporters in the Post newsroom, and readers, uncomfortable — and sometimes I’m with them.
I enjoy reading Klein’s columns and the Wonkblog. He has intelligent, insightful things to say about politics and policy. In addition, he now has a team of three fellow bloggers who report on energy and the environment, health care, plus financial reform and budget policy. But shouldn’t he and they be on the op-ed page? Where exactly do they fit within the newspaper?
I’ll have a future column on these questions, but I do want to erase some of the misconceptions about his purported “briefing” to chiefs of staff for Senate Democrats.
Klein himself put out a blog post on this. I spoke with him at length, as well as to three Democratic chiefs of staff who attended the meeting.
Here’s what they told me:
This was not a briefing. The chiefs of staff meet weekly or biweekly, off Capitol Hill, to discuss strategy, coordination and policy. At the end of that private meeting, they invite a guest to come in to speak and answer questions. Other journalists have done this before, including Chuck Todd of MSNBC and The Post’s Chris Cillizza, said Maura Keefe, chief of staff to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) Keefe organizes and chairs the meetings. Other guests have included think-tank experts, pundits, and policy experts from the White House or other agencies of government. The sessions are off the record and there is a lot of give-and-take.
Klein “was not asked to brief us on any particular issue, including the supercommittee, but just to come over and do Q&A,” said Keefe.
The session, according to Klein and the three chiefs of staff, included a back-and-forth on Occupy Wall Street, the public’s perception of the economy and of Congress, a discussion of studies on income disparities, and the politics of both parties’ presidential campaigns.
“There was nothing unusual about Ezra's appearance,” Keefe said in an e-mail. “We’ve had a number of journalists come and talk with us. We like to hear from smart people who have different perspectives than ours. Also, Ezra didn’t ‘brief’ us on the supercommittee — that’s absurd. We had a discussion that mostly focused on public perceptions of issues and Congress, with some presidential politics thrown in for good measure.”
Klein told me that, more than anything, this was him cultivating sources, as all reporters do in this town. It’s not every day you get to sit with a couple of dozen Senate chiefs of staff, he noted. And it was scheduled by them, not by him. He said the supercommittee barely came up and he gave no advice about it.
“I’m in continuous conversation with congressional staffs, executive agencies, think tanks and the White House,” Klein said. “It’s no different than that. . . . This is like a million discussions I have had with staffers of both parties.”
And if he were invited by a group of GOP staffers? “I would go in two seconds. . . . .If I wasn’t in continuous conversation with staffers of both parties, I couldn’t do my job.”
I don’t think Klein’s appearance at this group was evil. Journalists sit down with lots of interest groups and experts around town, sometimes off the record, sometimes on background, sometimes on the record. This doesn’t strike me as much different.
Now on to Aaron Blake’s now-infamous tweet: “Hey Tweeps: Looking for outlandish/incorrect predictions and quotes from Newt Gingrich’s past. Any ideas for me?”
This is an example of a relatively new reporting technique called crowdsourcing — using social media to contact as many people as possible who might have particular knowledge of a subject the reporter is working on.
The Right calls this biased digging up dirt. I call it a reporter’s inartful and early foray into crowdsourcing.
The facts are that Gingrich does make lots of outlandish statements, and sometimes predictions, that later turn out not to be true. He is a rhetorical risk-taker and never hesitates to hurl himself into a verbal fistfight, as anyone who has ever spent time with him knows. I don’t think even Newt would deny this.
Post columnist George Will has taken Gingrich to task on this point this year on ABC’s “This Week.” Will said May 15 that Gingrich “is one of these people who says that to understand Barack Obama, you need to understand his Kenyan, anti- colonial mentality, and this is just not a serious candidate.”
I agree with the Post’s media blogger, Erik Wemple, on this one.
Blake’s tweet sounds biased in its tone and should have been rephrased. And I suspect he didn’t get a lot of tweets in response. If he’s going to do a story on Gingrich’s failed predictions and more outlandish statements, he may have to dig into some archives, and do some interviewing, to find the choicest ones.
Conservatives make a good point when they say the same kind of crowdsourcing techniques should be used on Democrats too, even President Obama, if Post journalists are serious about their unbiased approach to news.
The Post has used crowdsourcing techniques successfully on larger project stories, and some smaller quick-hit stories as well. But it has to be done evenhandedly, and with care.