It’s just one email chain. Then again, so was the last one. And the one before that.
At what point do we say there’s an institutional problem in Washington journalism?
That’s not a rhetorical question meant to suggest that such a problem exists. I honestly don’t know that it does. I’m genuinely asking. What volume of evidence would we need to say that sacrificing principles for access is a real issue?
This is what I’m wondering after Gawker on Tuesday published the latest revelation from its public records request for all email correspondence between former deputy assistant secretary of state Philippe Reines, a top aide to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and members of the press.
Gawker posted a series of emails between Reines and former Atlantic contributing editor Marc Ambinder that show Ambinder allowing Reines to dictate word choice and framing in a story about a July 2009 policy speech delivered by Clinton. In exchange, Reines gave Ambinder, now an editor-at-large at The Week, an early look at Clinton’s prepared remarks — a scoop that allowed him to write a preview of a speech that other journalists had to wait to see live.
The deal was for Ambinder to describe Clinton’s address as “muscular” and to note that other important foreign policy figures — specifically Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell and Dennis Ross — would be seated in front of her. Reines asked Ambinder to suggest, in his “own clever way,” that the seating arrangement was “certainly not a coincidence and meant to convey something.”
Recall that this was less than six months into Barack Obama’s presidency — early enough for there to be some jockeying for power. The “something” Reines wanted Ambinder to convey appears to be that Clinton, not these other guys, called the shots.
Ambinder replied with a simple “got it” and then penned this opening paragraph:
When you think of President Obama's foreign policy, think of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That's the message behind a muscular speech that Clinton is set to deliver today to the Council on Foreign Relations. 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.
Gawker’s Ambinder story follows last week’s piece about Politico Playbook author Mike Allen allowing Reines to ghostwrite an item in a 2010 edition of Allen's popular daily news roundup, Playbook.
And that followed a November story about Allen offering a “no-risk” interview to Chelsea Clinton that would feature only questions he and Reines “would agree on … precisely in advance.” Unlike the Playbook item and the Atlantic story, however, the Chelsea Clinton interview never actually happened.
To their credit, Allen and Ambinder have mostly taken ownership of these lapses in judgment. Allen wrote in Playbook after Gawker’s Chelsea Clinton story that his old email to Reines “makes me cringe”; he added that Politico has a policy against sharing questions in advance and that he “should never have suggested we would.” (As Gawker also notes, Allen used the same "muscular" terminology as Ambinder in his own item on the Clinton speech -- and mentioned the three men, as Ambinder did. There is no similar email correspondence that has been revealed with Allen on this particular event.)
Ambinder fell on his sword in an interview with Gawker:
It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable today. 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.
Ambinder did not respond to a Fix inquiry on Tuesday. What I (and, I assume media consumers) would like to know is how common this kind of “transactional” political reporting is. Here at The Fix, we’re in the business of step-back analysis, so I’m not much help in answering the question first-hand because my lifeblood isn’t breaking news.
Ambinder went out of his way to say his employer never pushed him to make such “uncomfortable” deals, suggesting the fault was his alone. But he also sent a message to other journalists in similar positions, hinting at a broader problem.
For now, all we have are greasy emails between one political operative and two reporters — hardly a full-blown crisis. But it's hard to say with any certainty that these are isolated incidents. It feels like Gawker is slowly exposing an ugly side of Washington journalism, one email at a time.