When they’re on the other side of a microphone or press pad, reporters can be as thin-skinned, controlling and paranoid as the people they cover. And they can be as unforthcoming about themselves and their organizations as any other source.
Stipulated: What reporters have to say about themselves is not nearly as important as the utterances of the people they cover. But the fact is, journalists know how the news game is played, and they’re all too eager to play it to their advantage when they’re the interrogated, not the interrogators. I’ve interviewed people in the news business for years; rare is the reporter or editor who speaks his or her mind freely. Most will provide information when asked, but only with strings attached.
Virtually every interview with a journalist begins with a brief negotiation. There are almost always “ground rules” to the interview, conditions designed to enhance the speaker’s control over his comments. This is done for the same reason that government press secretaries, Pentagon generals and corporate public-relations people negotiate the conditions of their interviews: They want to get the most favorable version of the story (favorable to the interview subject, that is) into circulation.
“Is this on the record?” journalists will ask even before the greetings are over. “Can we talk on background?”
No, we can’t, or shouldn’t. As they know full well, “background” information lives in journalism’s gray zone. It is publishable, but only without the source’s name. On-the-record information — the kind attributable to an actual human, not a ghost — is stronger and better than background information.
Even worse are demands that the conversation take place “off-the-record” (not to be published, but useful in steering a reporter off bad information or to more information). Even worse than worse is “no comment” — that is, not doing the very thing that journalists earn their livings getting other people to do.
Last week, I spoke with seven reporters for a story about the formation of a press pool — effectively, an information-sharing cooperative — to cover Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. Two of the seven reporters were initially reluctant to speak at all and had to be coaxed into doing so with the usual promises of anonymity. Five of the seven eventually spoke only “on background,” meaning their names would not be used in the story. In this, they were no more accommodating than a representative from the campaign, who also would only agree to speak on background.
And this was hardly a story of great import. It was just a little story about how the political media does its business (admittedly, perhaps not a flattering subject to its practitioners).
Several years ago, a mighty noise arose from the press mob over demands by political campaigns for “quote approval.” The idea was that in exchange for granting an interview with a candidate or a candidate’s aides, the campaign maintained the right to review and veto quotes before publication.
The policy was, of course, designed to increase a politician’s control over his or her mediated image. Under such an arrangement, an unflattering utterance, no matter how revealing or truthful, could be stricken from a news story before readers or voters saw it.
Outrageous? Unacceptable? Yes. Except reporters do the same thing. Or try to.
One of the reporters I spoke with on the Clinton story — notice I’m not naming names; a promise is a promise — began our conversation with more negotiating ploys than a used-car salesman. Back and forth we went, like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, until I finally received the final pitch: “Why don’t we speak off the record first, and then you can e-mail some quotes afterward and I can okay them. Okay?”
Again, not okay.
As fraught as these encounters were, they are far better than being directed to a reporter’s PR shop. When they’re in the news, news organizations can go into lockdown mode just as quickly as any other embattled company or politician. Facts become scarce, as are knowledgeable and on-the-record sources (think of ABC News during its recent George Stephanopoulos unpleasantness or NBC News during its Brian Williams problem). Press and PR people are often helpful, but only to the degree that the helpfulness serves the corporate damage-control mission.
Some journalists won’t, or can’t as a matter of company policy, speak to another reporter without the intercession of one of these reps. And intercede they do. I’ve had PR people call back to negotiate the subject matter, scope and duration of my interviews with their reporters, sometimes even to the point of spelling out which questions are “acceptable.” I never know if this is because the flacks don’t trust me or because they don’t trust their colleagues.
On rare occasions, the flacks will hang on the line or sit in the room while the interview takes place. This means some news organizations are no different from the White House or other newsworthy outfits, which assign third-party “minders” to watch over interviews.
All of this is not, by the way, a justification for continued secrecy or stonewalling by government officials and others in power. Government information belongs to us, and it’s our right to have it. It’s also more important to the functioning of democracy than whether journalists are willing to talk honestly and forthrightly about how they do their job.
But I have some news for my brethren and sistren in the news business: When it comes to complaining about obfuscation and manipulation, be careful before tossing stones. Over in Mediaville, the houses are made of glass.