Four years ago, Politico dinged New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti for sharing an advance copy of a column by Maureen Dowd with a CIA spokesperson. “This didn’t come from me,” wrote Mazzetti in an email unearthed by a records request from Judicial Watch, “… and please delete after you read. See, nothing to worry about!” A New York Times flack later referred to the incident of draft-sharing as a “mistake.”
Now Politico is facing criticism over a draft-sharing episode of its own. The WikiLeaks batch of emails fetched from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) show that Chief Investigative Reporter Ken Vogel in late April forwarded a full draft of a pending story to Mark Paustenbach, the DNC’s national press secretary and deputy communications director. In an email to a colleague, Paustenbach wrote, “Vogel gave me his story ahead of time/before it goes to his editors as long as I didn’t share it. Let me know if you see anything that’s missing and I’ll push back.” Included in the email was a long story that Vogel had written about the apparently unfulfilled promised of Hillary Clinton to rebuild the Democrats’ critical state party organs. Here’s the lead of the draft, as sent by Vogel to the DNC (complete with HTML, sorry):
In the days before Hillary Clinton launched an unprecedented big-money fundraising vehicle with state parties last summer, she vowed “to rebuild our party<http://articles.philly.com/2015-08-29/news/66006747_1_o-malley-democratic-party-party-leaders> from the ground up,” because she proclaimed “when state parties are strong, we win.” But less than 1 percent of the $61 million raised by that effort has stayed in the state parties’ coffers, according to a POLITICO analysis of the latest Federal Election Commission filings.
That “vehicle,” as Vogel explained, is something called the Hillary Victory Fund, a joint fundraising enterprise consisting of the Clinton campaign, the DNC and the 32 state party cells. The story’s final, published version goes into extensive detail about the many ways in which this group had failed to immediately improve the fortunes of the state parties. “The victory fund has transferred $3.8 million to the state parties, but almost all of that cash ($3.3 million, or 88 percent) was quickly transferred to the DNC, usually within a day or two, by the Clinton staffer who controls the committee, POLITICO’s analysis of the FEC records found,” wrote Vogel in partnership with Isaac Arnsdorf.
Before Vogel emailed his story draft to the DNC, he sent along a number of questions, which sent the Democrats into a fit of message-preparing correspondence. “Spoke to Clinton campaign,” emailed Paustenbach to a peer. “They agreed that we should highlight all the ways the state parties benefit from DNC infrastructure improvements.” Among the issues addressed in Vogel’s questions related to Amalgamated Bank, which handled the victory fund’s accounts; some state parties complained that funds were transferred from their accounts without their consent. “Let’s reach out to Amalgamated and make sure they don’t say something dumb,” wrote lawyer Graham Wilson of Perkins Coie.
In all, the back-and-forth documents something that all reporters want to see in their line of work: political types absolutely freaking out about a pending scoop.
Per Vogel’s efforts, the story contains significant comment from the DNC and the Clinton campaign. “About $4.5 million has already been transferred to state parties and there is an additional $9 million on hand that will be distributed over the coming months as state parties ramp up for the general election,” a Clinton campaign official told the Politico reporters.
The story provided fodder for anti-Clinton forces. Michael Briggs, a spokesman for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, blasted out the story, perhaps seeking to seize upon the storyline of a Hillary Clinton promise unfulfilled. “Politico Exposes Clinton Campaign ‘Money-Laundering’ Scheme,” read the release from Sanders. The Republican National Committee also publicized the scoop.
A different, wacky political dynamic descended on the news that Vogel had shared the draft with the DNC. Even though the story cast Democrats in an unflattering light, commentators blasted Vogel for his reportorial tack.
— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) July 24, 2016
— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) July 24, 2016
— )))Attorney4Trump((( (@RobertPercin) July 24, 2016
— Tony A. Phyrillas (@TonyPhyrillas) July 24, 2016
And we could go on and on with similarly themed embedded tweets.
In a statement sent to the Erik Wemple Blog over the weekend, Politico said this:
POLITICO’s policy is to not share editorial content pre-publication except as approved by editors. In this case the reporter was attempting to check some very technical language and figures involving the DNC’s joint fundraising agreement with the Clinton campaign. Checking the relevant passages for accuracy was responsible and consistent with our standards; Sharing the full piece was a mistake and not consistent with our policies. There were no substantive changes to the piece and in fact the final story was blasted out by the both RNC and the Sanders campaign, and actually prompted Politifact to revise its rating on the issue in question.
With the exception of capitalizing a word that follows a semicolon, that statement is an excellent response to the over-the-top criticisms of Vogel’s pre-publication generosity.
Some background: Years ago, the Erik Wemple Blog endorsed the pre-publication sharing of a draft by a reporter from The Washington Post. That incident, involving a story about the University of Texas, touched off one of those heated insider-journalism debates about what’s ethical and what’s bankrupt. Longtime Washington Postie Gene Weingarten wrote strongly against draft-sharing, an argument that over time has convinced this blog that we overshot in the other direction.
So, yes, Vogel made a mistake in sending off the draft whole hog before it even reached his editors. Under these circumstances, however, the mistake is not even a misdemeanor in the larger scheme of journalistic wrongdoing. When we first saw the subject line and the comment about how Vogel had agreed to pass along his work, we feared that he was assisting the DNC in fashioning its message, its campaign-year propaganda.
Impression mistaken — Vogel and Arnsdorf were bringing the full weight of a Politico investigation to the DNC and the Clinton campaign, as if to say: We’ve got all this stuff on you. What say you?
The story zeroes in on one of the most fundamental journalistic imperatives, that of making sure that the people you’re writing about have the opportunity to rebut all relevant claims in a story. Over the years, reporters have proceeded with Goldilocks-style clumsiness on this front. Former Post reporter Daniel de Vise, the reporter in the University of Texas case, and now Vogel are accused of doing too much sharing. The New York Times a year ago stood accused of doing too little sharing in an investigation of Amazon’s workplace (Disclosure: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). Getting it just right — that is, sending along all relevant claims without sharing too much of the surrounding stuff — takes care and time. Though Politico wouldn’t comment on the record beyond its statement, it appears that Vogel rushed through the process.
In a hypothetical choice between undersharing and oversharing, we’d take Vogel’s mistake every time. The WikiLeaks emails indeed show an irregularity in reportorial procedures. But the published record shows something more important — a pointed, influential and exclusive piece of journalism. Lay off Ken Vogel.