Bob Schieffer of CBS News gave one of the great media quotes of 2013. He was asked by Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of The Post, about how the Obama administration ranked in terms of openness toward the media. Schieffer riffed: “When I’m asked what is the most manipulative and secretive administration I’ve covered, I always say it’s the one in office now. Every administration learns from the previous administration. They become more secretive and put tighter clamps on information. This administration exercises more control than George W. Bush’s did, and his before that.”
Schieffer’s tough assessment came in an October report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that was written by Downie with reporting by Sara Rafsky. The report cited the usual charges against the Obama administration’s record of media transparency, including the astonishing number of leak investigations since 2009, the seizure of the phone records of the Associated Press (AP) and a strange legal proceeding in which Fox News reporter James Rosen was “an aider, abettor and/or conspirator” in an alleged violation of the Espionage Act.
The CPJ report came weeks before the latest flashpoint in the dismal-Obama-transparency story, which is the campaign by many media organizations to secure greater access by news photographers to presidential events. Instead of allowing news outlets to photograph certain events, the White House instead circulates official images, which media detractors call “visual press releases.”
Let’s just hope that the accountability mallet doesn’t swing in the opposite direction. Because CPJ would have a blast examining the transparency of the news organizations that demand transparency from the Obama administration.
Perhaps CBS News and “60 Minutes” — Schieffer’s world, that is — would be a compelling point of departure. On Oct. 27, “60 Minutes” aired its now-infamous investigation on Benghazi. It relied heavily on the testimony of security officer Dylan Davies, who claimed on air — under the cover of a pseudonym — to have participated in the Sept. 11, 2012, mayhem that left four American personnel dead in Benghazi. He gave a colorful account of events, punctuated by a boast that he’d pounded an adversary with the butt of his rifle.
Trouble came days later in the form of a Post article alleging that Davies had told his supervisor that he’d never even reached the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that night.
The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone documented the stonewalling that he received upon pressing CBS News about the discrepancies. Continued pressure eventually resulted in a statement from Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman and “60 Minutes” executive producer, supporting the enterprise: “We are proud of the reporting that went into the story and have confidence that our sources, including those who appeared on ’60 Minutes,’ told accurate versions of what happened that night.”
— Michael Calderone (@mlcalderone) November 7, 2013
After iron-clad refutation surfaced, CBS News relented. It apologized. It commissioned an internal review of the incident. It released the results of that review. It published statements about the episode. It arranged leaves of absence for two critical staffers in the report, correspondent Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan.
Is that a model of journalistic transparency? Or a model of journalistic transparency at the point of a gun? Perhaps the best way to answer the question would be to pose a hypothetical: Just how would the media treat a White House that refused to answer questions about an alleged scandal, then denied the scandal, only to acknowledge it in the face of overwhelming evidence? You don’t need to be a third-rate Beltway pundit to answer that question.
When “60 Minutes” more recently took a beating for its coverage of the National Security Agency, New York Times media reporter David Carr sought out Fager for an explanation. Here’s how that went: “Mr. Fager would not speak on the record, perhaps in part because he was pummeled after initially defending the Benghazi broadcast.” Perhaps!
To belabor the comparison between Schieffer’s Obama assessment and CBS News’s own practices, let’s turn to correspondent Sharyl Attkisson. This CBS News star is a crusader for transparency, as she makes clear on her Twitter account:
In fact, White House hasn’t responded to any of our calls on the matter in the past year.
— Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) December 4, 2013
White House still hasn’t authorized release of Benghazi-night White House photos which we requested a year ago.
— Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) December 4, 2013
And they still haven’t granted our request for access to http://t.co/MY8hg4C4JL fix sites…
— Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) December 4, 2013
As a journalist, I don’t think the administration is hiding anything in particular. They just don’t see anything wrong with picking and
— Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) December 2, 2013
choosing who gets access to the public’s info.
— Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) December 2, 2013
Over the past several months, Attkisson has done some picking and choosing of her own. In a May radio interview, she spoke about intrusions into her work and home computers. Asked whether she believed the hacking might have been connected to the sort of heavy-handed government work in the James Rosen-Justice Department dust-up, Attkisson replied: “Well, I don’t know details of his … I only know what I’ve read, but I think there could be some relationship between these types of things and what’s happened to me.”
In June, CBS News confirmed multiple breaches of Attkisson’s computers but declined to ID the firm that had done the diagnostic work. An official statement ended with this line: “CBS News is taking steps to identify the responsible party and their method of access.” Attkisson kept the story alive by appearing on Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor” and saying, “I think I know” who did the dirty work. The Erik Wemple Blog has asked CBS News and Attkisson repeatedly for updates on the search for the perp; we’ve gotten nothing of substance.
May it be known that at least one other person remains interested in the Attkisson-computer story:
@ErikWemple Heard anything new lately on Sharyl Attkisson’s computer hack at CBS?
— Bill Lamb (@zachvat) December 30, 2013
CBS News declined to comment on its transparency.
To paraphrase Charles Barkley, CBS News needn’t worry about being the least transparent news organization so long as Fox News sticks around. Much has been written about the Fox News media operation — about how it freezes out reporters, plays favorites, plants stories, etc. Yet the revelations that recently spilled out of David Folkenflik’s book “Murdoch’s World” trivializes all the collected wisdom about this pod of operatives: Fox News in 2008 planted a false tip with a reporter who was working on a story about the ratings success of CNN. After the reporter published a piece based on the tip, Fox News trashed him.
That’s not transparency; it’s not un-transparency; it’s malarency.
Whatever their relative merits on openness, TV outlets keep a tighter lid on information than, say, newspapers or Web outfits, those radical organizations that occasionally allow their reporters to simply hop on the phone and speak about their jobs! The New York Times’s Carr tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “I think that’s because people [in TV] see themselves as talent, and not journalists.” Those “talent” people, too, know better than to shirk the folks in the media department. On those occasions when the Erik Wemple Blog manages to get face to face with broadcast types, they’re generally very diligent about referring us to their PR overseers.
Broadcasters work their media through the tyranny of the STATEMENT. We’ve all see the scenario: Someone says something exceedingly dumb, and media reporters want a reaction from the bosses. What results is either silence or a two- to three-sentence statement. Statementism has some democratic appeal; these days there are tons of outlets that cover the media, so it’s impossible to give interviews to all of them. At the same time, statements are commonly offered as substitutes for meaningful interaction with news bosses.
Andrew Beaujon, who writes for Poynter.org, notes that statementism works wonders for its practitioners in these modern times. “I think that they take great advantage of the Internet news climate in which you find yourself racing to push out the same statement that they’ve given to a bunch of other people,” says Beaujon. “There’s this perverse incentive to be the first to report the same thing they’ve told everyone else.” (Disclosure: Carr and Beaujon are friends and former colleagues of mine.)
Beaujon insists on a distinction between responsiveness and transparency. The PR shops at major broadcasters and most newspapers, indeed, run on the power of motivated, smart and always-working professionals who work e-mail as effortlessly as their breathing passages. Whether all those e-mails and statements amount to genuine insight on their employers is another matter. “Most news orgs on my beat are very responsive and only a few are very transparent,” says Beaujon.
Have a look at the recent situation at MSNBC with Martin Bashir. On Nov. 15, Bashir uttered that inhumane fantasy about how Sarah Palin deserves to be treated for having compared public debt to slavery. On his next program, Bashir offered a serious and airtight apology for his misdeed, for which he earned positive transparency points. He later went on vacation, according a network spokesperson. When the pressure stepped up, MSNBC issued this classic statement:
Martin Bashir has taken responsibility publicly for his offensive commentary and also personally apologized to the Palin family. Bashir offered a heartfelt apology on MSNBC earlier this week where he admitted it was a personal failing to become part of the politics of vitriol and destruction. He has committed to elevating the discourse going forward.
The backlash wouldn’t ease, however, and Bashir eventually resigned, yielding yet another opportunity for statements. One of those statements came from MSNBC President Phil Griffin: “Martin Bashir resigned today, effective immediately. I understand his decision and I thank him for three great years with msnbc. Martin is a good man and respected colleague – we wish him only the best.”
NewsBusters, a watchdog site that tracks liberal bias in the media, bashed Griffin for stating “only public support for Bashir.” When asked by the Erik Wemple Blog about his leadership and visibility during l’affaire Bashir, Griffin responded, “I’ve spoken about it and made it clear that I feel it was unfortunate, but we’re moving on.”
To MSNBC’s credit, accountability happened here. Bashir said hateful things and he ended up resigning. But what about transparency? Craig Silverman, editor of Regret the Error and an adjunct faculty member at Poynter, opines: “Take this incident out of the media context for a second: If a high-level person publicly, and in the course of their work, made completely inappropriate, disgusting and unacceptable comments, then the expectation is that their organization will react swiftly and at the highest level. That’s what we in the media would expect and demand if a senior exec or spokesperson made outrageous public comments. But somehow when these same things occur at some media organizations, it’s supposedly okay for the leadership to not step up.”
Again, the standard: Did MSNBC live up to the expectations that media organizations place in front of the White House?
Now for CNN, quickly. Over the past year, we celebrated CNN’s awesome display of self-accountability, as it allowed then-New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, a guest host of “Reliable Sources,” to criticize the network over the conflicts of interest among hosts of “Crossfire.” “CNN can do better than this,” said Stelter. A glorious moment. Less glorious was the network’s hunker-down approach when criticized for its coverage of the Steubenville rape case verdict, or the fact that CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker only recently completed his “first one-on-one interview since taking control of CNN last January,” in the words of Capital New York’s Mike Allen and Alex Weprin. When asked for an overall assessment of CNN transparency, Beaujon responded, “Pretty good.” Right — a couple of levels below what CNN’s Jake Tapper, for instance, would demand of a federal bureaucrat sitting before him.
When the Erik Wemple Blog asked Silverman to riff about good and bad media-transparency organizations, he responded, in part:
I find it strange that Politico does such a huge amount of media coverage, but its top leadership are unwilling to meaningfully address valid criticism, or internal incidents. Two examples of this would be the reaction to your story about Mike Allen’s conflicted, confusing and troubled treatment of sponsored content in Playbook; and the way leadership refused to speak to anyone after they discovered a plagiarist on staff.
Indeed, the Erik Wemple Blog bugged Politico for weeks about our Mike Allen story, to little avail. Politico CEO Jim VandeHei later said that the news organization declined to “play ball” with us because leaders there thought the piece was “nonsense.” How many senators and bureaucrats would love to take that route when confronted by Politico reporters?
Politico editors are generous with their time when they’re launching products. We spoke with Editor in Chief John Harris about the launch of Politico Magazine, for example. Yet our experience tracks closely with Silverman’s critique: When we contacted Politico about problems with this story on Obamacare, or this story on the New York Times, or the plagiarism situation (which happened in 2011), we got no comment from the Politico people. (In the case of the plagiarism, Politico did self-disclose the problem but declined requests for further information.)
Politico didn’t return an inquiry on its transparency.
The Associated Press had a big year in agitating for government transparency, raising a giant stink over the Justice Department’s secret seizure of its phone records and playing an important role in the push for greater photographic access to President Obama. Yet when its Richmond statehouse reporter Bob Lewis posted a massively erroneous report about then-Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, the wire service went a bit quiet. In doing so, it hid behind the trusty Personnel Matter Comment Exemption, which, as far as we can tell, allows news organization to refrain from commenting about mishaps so grievous that they trigger disciplinary actions. The AP fired Lewis and others in the episode and hasn’t explained how it all came about. As Silverman notes, “Aside from basic corporate statements, AP has not offered details about the decision, the precedent for it, and how the offending story was handled.”
Two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, the AP reported that an arrest was imminent in the case. That reporting turned out to have been wrong. The AP responded with a correction and a pretty detailed rundown of what had gone wrong. Perhaps there were no “personnel” issues involved in that one.
In the category of miscellaneous and senseless un-transparency, dial back to early July, when the Washington Times announced some leadership changes via a news release. We rang up the newspaper for some more information and got this response from the person who answered the telephone: “I’ve been instructed to tell you that our press releases speak for themselves.” No further inquiries, then!
And Poynter’s Beaujon has something of a gripe with the Los Angeles Times, whose PR department, he claims, chastised him after he directly contacted a journalist at the paper. When asked about the situation, Los Angeles Times spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan responded via e-mail that “all inquiries and interview requests” must be routed through the communications department: “[T]hat is The Times process and allows us to best assist and facilitate the myriad inquiries we get daily. Often those requests involve scheduling, questions as to who is the right reporter, editor or executive to talk to, use of our TV or audio studios, licensing of photos, etc.” Control-freakish as that “policy” rings, the Erik Wemple Blog will credit Sullivan with always hustling to answer inquiries.
Balance dictates shout-outs to the various organizations that accommodate inquiry and welcome oversight. Here’s a semicolon-heavy riff on some really good ones. BuzzFeed, credited by Beaujon for never giving him “the runaround,” an assessment seconded by the Erik Wemple Blog; Gawker Media, where honest feedback is one e-mail away, an assessment seconded by Silverman; the New York Times, where rep Eileen Murphy is always there to facilitate interviews, not block them, unless the inquiries are ridiculous to begin with; The Post, whose executive editor, Marty Baron, welcomed the Erik Wemple Blog into his office for this piece on the Post Magazine’s struggles with the business side of the company; Breitbart.com, whose political editor, Michael Flynn, is quick to respond to our questions; the rarely defensive Huffington Post; and others that escape our memory at the moment.
The media’s transparency record is as messy and sprawling as the media landscape itself — though it’s clear that this unevenness leaves it far short of the standard expected of the government that we all watch-dog. As far as the transparency trend line, there’ll be no attempt here to divine in which direction it’s headed. The massive number of media outlets and the difficulty of measuring something as squishy as “transparency” render such a judgment impossible, as Carr captures with this comment: “In general, media people are weenies. I don’t know if they’re weenier than they used to be.