The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Corrupt journalism doesn’t pay. Nor does abetting it.

Hillary Clinton speaks in Clear Lake, Iowa, last year. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Former Atlantic contributing editor* Marc Ambinder is showing appropriate contrition for having participated in some dubious journalistic practices back in July 2009. As exposed by some Freedom Of Information Act documents secured by J.K. Trotter of Gawker, Ambinder was pursuing a copy of the speech that then- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to make at the Council on Foreign Relations. So he emailed renowned Clinton advocate and spokesperson Philippe Reines.

The back-and-forth confirms anyone’s worst suspicions about access journalism. The transaction went like this:

• Ambinder asks for a copy of the speech;
• Reines says he’ll send it, with conditions;
• Ambinder writes back, “ok”;
• Reines lays out the conditions:

1) You in your own voice describe them as “muscular”
2) You note that a look at the CFR seating plan shows that all the envoys — from Holbrooke to Mitchell to Ross — will be arrayed in front of her, which in your own clever way you can say certainly not a coincidence and meant to convey something
3) You don’t say you were blackmailed!

• Ambinder writes, “got it.”

The story, it turns out, rated Clinton’s speech “muscular” and indeed made reference to the seating thing: “The staging gives a clue to its purpose: seated in front of Clinton, subordinate to Clinton, in the first row, will be three potentially rival power centers: envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, and National Security Council senior director Dennis Ross,” wrote Ambinder, completing his compliance with Reines’s conditions.

In a series of remarks to Gawker, Ambinder lamented making the deal. “It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable today,” said Ambinder. “And when I look at that email record, it is a reminder to me of why I moved away from all that. The Atlantic, to their credit, never pushed me to do that, to turn into a scoop factory. In the fullness of time, any journalist or writer who is confronted by the prospect, or gets in the situation where their journalism begins to feel transactional, should listen to their gut feeling and push away from that.”

That’s a dash of knowledge seasoned by seven years of perspective: Who remembers Clinton’s July 15, 2009, speech before the Council on Foreign Relations? And even if it was a consequential address, what lasting contribution or analysis did Ambinder contribute with his piece on it? The story was a quick-hit classic, incorporating the elements required by Reines, plus some further analysis and some block quotes from the speech’s text. Of course, Clinton eventually issued the speech, meaning that the rest of the journalism field gained access to it. An “ego scoop,” as New York University Professor Jay Rosen would say. Maybe it drove some traffic that day.

Though Ambinder will bear most of the smirch from this Beltway bucket of slime, the episode speaks to the inadvisability of encouraging journalists to flout the SPJ code of ethics. Sure, Reines secured a bit of positive coverage for the speech and perhaps deepened his relationship with a prominent journalist or two. The term “muscular” scooted around the web in connection with Clinton, as Gawker pointed out. And perhaps the secretary came away satisfied with what Reines had orchestrated.

The boost, however, was just as transitory as the Ambinder article itself. And the risk of insisting on conditions with ball-playing journalists is now emerging: The Clinton camp was so desperate for praise that it went to extremes to place a single positive adjective in coverage. Also, Reines’s insistence on secrecy about the “blackmail” was a reckless bet against the very industry he dealt with each day; via the FOIA process, journalism outed his part in rancid sausage-making.

*Correction: Previous edition didn’t make clear that Ambinder is a former contributing editor.