Earlier this week, Gawker reporter J.K. Trotter highlighted a new set of documents exposing the inner workings of Beltway journalism. Using documents procured through FOIA, Trotter showed how then-Atlantic contributing editor Marc Ambinder sought an early copy of a July 2009 foreign policy speech by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ambinder appealed to Philippe Reines, a legendary Washington press liaison who was then working for Clinton. The emails said this, as we highlighted in a post:
- 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.”
Indeed, Ambinder’s story ended up describing the speech as “muscular” and also referenced the envoys.
Under a scolding headline — “Corrupt journalism doesn’t pay. Nor does abetting it.” — the Erik Wemple Blog criticized Ambinder and Reines as well, for the apparent “muscular” placement. We emailed Reines for comment but didn’t hear back before posting.
Turns out the pugnacious Reines was working on an essay, which this blog received last night. It’s a classic Reines blast, and there’ll be no attempt to abridge it:
Hi Erik [Wemple Blog],
The media on media violence triggered by the ongoing release of my inbox from the four years I served in the Administration has led me to emerge from my self-imposed hibernation (for one night only).
Any reporter who’s ever interacted with me can guess that I am more than a little entertained by seeing the media eat its own. But they also know that there is a lot of hypocrisy going on here. They know that because they themselves have engaged in what you and others have called transactional journalism — the ultimate Washington DC redundant phrase.
And that’s because you can’t throw a dart at the White House Correspondents Dinner without hitting someone who has been involved in quote approval, ground rule negotiation, source obfuscation — and every other routine thing that goes on every day, on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the equation.
And with all due respect, that includes you.
In an either unnoticed or ignored irony, the very same batch that included my exchange with Marc Ambinder that you devoted an entire column to, you and I had a prolonged exchange, on page 703: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2704594/January-31-Reines-Emails.pdf
We interacted often in 2012 and 2013. While we often disagreed, we were in vigorous agreement that accuracy in political reporting is vital, but often lacking. That’s all you & I were doing on September 23, 2012. But while I know what I meant in that exchange, and I know what you meant in that exchange — putting accuracy above all else – others could read your words through the rearview prism of accusation and say you were letting me edit your piece. You were doing no such thing. You would never allow your name on a byline if you didn’t believe in every word. Nor would Marc Ambinder.
So until there is some equivalent of the Geneva Conventions explicitly spelling out the rules we should all abide by, it would be far fairer (and accurate) to either indict everyone equally, or defend everyone equally.
But this Unethical Reporter of the Week routine, based entirely on whatever fakakta process is determining which of my email is produced to Gawker and in what order, is truly hypocritical. While it will take until late 2018 or even 2019 for all of my 80,000+ email to be out there, I have a well informed source who already knows what’s in my email:
I wrote them. I read them.
And right or wrong, this is the norm. It’s the norm in every newsroom — including your own — and every communications shop in the city.
So anyone shocked by the gambling going on in the casino is being disingenuous at best. And they are setting themselves up for a fall when their email is outed.
So I’m begging you, please don’t make me have to defend journalism again…
Pause to consider an area of agreement between Reines and Breitbart. After this blog’s post on Ambinder and Reines appeared, fiery Breitbart media monitor John Nolte tweeted:
No point in quarreling with that consensus. As Gawker’s archive of Reines correspondence shows, this fellow has gathered a great deal of exposure to the ethics and work habits of Washington journalists. And Reines is right about his interactions with this blog; they were extensive, covering topics like CNN, Fox News and Benghazi.
Nor will we quibble with his description of our correspondence on Sept. 23, 2012, not even two weeks after the attacks on U.S. interests in Benghazi, Libya. This blog was corresponding with Reines in reporting on a spat between the State Department and CNN, whose correspondent Arwa Damon had alighted upon the site of the (first) attack and found a journal that had been written by U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who died in the assault. Issues of privacy, the public’s right to know and State Department procedure were all part of this complicated story. Our post details the whole thing. After it surfaced on the Internet, Reines requested a clarification that this blog implemented; an asterisk noting the change was appended to the post.
In his email criticizing this blog, Reines needled us by attaching a smidgen of correspondence from 2013 in which this blog sought a wide-ranging discussion about then-CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson. Reines asked about ground rules, to which this blog responded, “You stipulate!”
Turning to the issue with Ambinder, Reines defends his work, as he notes in a subsequent email to the Erik Wemple Blog. His relationship with Ambinder “[b]egan more than a dozen years ago, when he was a lot bigger and I was a lot smaller. If I could have made any trade with him, it would be on that front, not an adjective to describe a speech. Beginning with The Hotline, he called it like he saw it. He bought what I was selling because it was true. If I had framed the speech as ‘Shakesperean’ and note that Snuffleupagus was in the front row, he would have come to a different conclusion based on his own eyes and ears. (Though I would have argued that as an adult he would be unable to see Snuffleupagus, let alone confirm his attendance.)”
Riffing, Reines keeps the lesson going: “And btw, change the scenario: if I had emailed any reporter that day with an embargoed copy of the speech, and described it for their advance story as ‘muscular’ – with the stipulation that I be cited anonymously as a State official – there is no editor in Washington who would say that ‘transaction’ didn’t meet common and acceptable standards. You & I would not be discussing it.”
Undeniably true, though as any public relations expert will swear, it’s always preferable for reporters to convey positive judgments in their own voices than to hear them from “officials.”
Ambinder himself told Gawker that in general, he spoke with Reines and then moved to email. “The exchange is probably at best an incomplete record of what went down,” Ambinder noted to Gawker, though he didn’t recall all the particulars. In an email to the Erik Wemple Blog, he said that the emails were indeed preceded by a phone call. “From what I can recall from seven years ago, and I know memory can be self-serving, Philippe and I discussed the speech in a phone call before the email. I told him it seemed pretty muscular because it seemed muscular,” writes Ambinder. “In the follow up messages that FOIA unearthed, he was needling me. ‘Hey, you said it was muscular. So use that word in your voice.’ It was a flack’s flacking suggestion. Based on the way he had described the speech, it was muscular. So I found the adjective appropriate.”
On the envoys’ seating scheme: “I used the information about the envoys in a way that Philippe did not agree with, and if I recall correctly, he told me so after that item was published. I thought and therefore wrote that the envoys were sitting in the front row because Clinton was sending a message to rival power centers.” More:
So: muscular was my word. The decision to characterize the envoys was mine. No one fed me anything. Period.
The specific language makes it seem like I agreed to use the word and include the fact in order to get a copy of the speech. Bull[—-]. I was reminding him to send me a copy of the speech. He was responding professionally and appropriately, in terms of the job he had to do, which was to remind me of the points he wanted to remind me. The words are banter.
The facts — the chain of events, what I actually published, what we remember — make that pretty plain.
At the same time, as much as I want to defend myself and believe I have a case to make, I recognize that a lot of people read that exchange and cringe. And the larger point for them is that, regardless of the context, it represents a type of transaction that corrodes their image of journalism and the democracy we journalists serve. I have thoughts on this, having been out of that business for five years, and I’ll lay them out in more detail, but that’s enough for now.
Bolding added to signal the Erik Wemple Blog’s sentiment as well.