In an interview with TPM, Ryan Lizza gets at an important change in the relationship between politicians and journalists who are trying to get them to talk on-the-record:
We were talking earlier about the daily gaffes and Twitter and the news cycle, and I’m totally as much to blame for helping that atmosphere as anyone. We all engage in tweeting and commenting and hammering these guys when they say something off message. It’s created a crisis for political journalism. People genuinely do not think it is in their interest — both White House and campaign officials, both campaigns, it’s not a partisan thing at all, it’s Democrats and Republicans — they genuinely do not believe it’s in their interest to talk in an unguarded way. Because even if they trust you to get the context 100 percent right, it doesn’t matter, because they know that a liberal or conservative blog, or a campaign ad, will just grab something out of context and run with it and create some damaging meme. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and it’s worse now than it’s ever been.
What leverage does a reporter have to get a politician to talk openly? There’s the argument from personal advancement. “You need the coverage we’re willing to give you.” But that only works if the politician actually needs the coverage. Most of the time, they don’t — and the degree to which they don’t rises in direct proportion to how important whatever they’re doing is. If the media already care, then they can just place their carefully negotiated quotes and background chats and get their message out anyway.
Then there’s the argument from responsibility: You owe the American people an explanation for what you’re doing. But the corollary to the argument from responsibility is that we, the media, will be responsible with that explanation. We’ll print enough of it that people will understand what you meant, and if you fumble around a bit as you try and explain yourself, we’ll be somewhat generous to the point you were trying to make. After all, there’s no point in providing an explanation if the public isn’t going to hear it.
But “we, the media” can’t credibly promise to be responsible. “I, the reporter” can. But let’s say I persuade a politician to do a long, in-depth Q&A on on the economy, and promise to print the whole thing in full. The politician — and his communications staff — can be confident that nothing will appear out of context on my blog. But they can be similarly confident that others in the media will read the interview and, if anything jumps out at them, they’ll present out-of-context snippets on their blogs, and in their articles and radio programs and cable news shows. And if, in the course of the interview, the politician say one dumb or poorly worded thing, those two sentences will catch fire, and appear before many, many, many more people than the actual interview will.
To paraphrase the old line, a gaffe can race across the world while a thoughtful explanation of fiscal policy is still tying its shoelaces.
This isn’t, by the way, a hypothetical. Perhaps my favorite thing to do on the blog is long Q&As, like the ones I’ve conducted with Tom Coburn, Kent Conrad, Paul Ryan, and Buddy Roemer, to name just a few. But those interviews are harder to get than they were even a few years ago. The communications directors see too little upside, and too much risk, to letting their charges speak freely in public. And I’m finding it increasingly difficult to explain why they’re wrong.