Piece of Mind has a rambling post about the relationship between journalists and politicians, composed in response to a comment I made criticizing his "graceless" response to Tim Russert's Death. My response was along the lines of, "If you can't say something nice ... ."
His new post is a whole different animal. The relationship between journalists and sources is a rich topic, and I claim no expertise about what goes in the halls of Washington. But I can't imagine that the dynamic is much different that what goes on in just about every government building in America. If anything, my experience has been that the higher one ascends in journalism, the easier the work becomes. The novice City Hall reporter in Podunk, Texas, not only is expected to ask elected officials tough questions, he may wind up buying his car from one, or getting his hair cut by one. Getting along gets complicated.
Naturally, examples abound of journalists who got too close to their sources. It's an occupational hazard. The reality is, most politicians don't have to talk to you most of the time, and you are likely to get better information from them if you treat them with courtesy and respect. Like many reporters, I usually find myself liking politicians, even those with prickly reputations. I like people who are willing to take unpopular stands in public, who work lots of late nights for little money to serve their communities, and who don't duck when they screw up in public. Politicians who meet these standards -- and quite a few do -- are OK by me.
But there is a big distinction between being friendly and being friends -- a distinction that Sean Hannity has trouble keeping straight with respect to Barack Obama and William Ayers. I suspect I have been uncomfortable at parties where politicians are present often enough to satisfy Piece of Mind. The relationship is, at its heart, adversarial. A city administrator once told me, "We're just trying to put our best foot forward." I replied, "And my job is to find the other foot."
But like lawyers who fight each other in court, then go out for a beer, grownup reporters and politicians learn not to take things too personally. Politicians should know that if they are caught doing something wrong, reporters will make them squirm, but they also should know that they will be treated fairly and given plenty of chances to respond.
Some reporters are such jerks that sources never confide in them. They tend to wash out of the business. Others are so cozy with sources that they get great story leads but can never "pull the trigger" on them. The best walk the difficult ground in between.
No one would mistake me for one of the best, but here's one example of how it works: When I covered the Yellowstone County Courthouse for the Gazette, I worked closely with then-Public Works Director Bill Gibbs. He was the go-to guy on road projects, and since rural people care a lot about their roads, much of what he did was newsworthy. I wrote plenty of stories about unhappy rural residents that he couldn't have liked much, but I never took a cheap shot, always got a response and occasionally would just stop by his office to chat.
Not exactly in-your-face journalism. But when Gibbs decided to level a whole raft of allegations about mismanagement of the road department, he didn't go to the Gazette. He came to see me at the Outpost, and we got ahead of the pack on a fairly big breaking story.
That's how it works. Maybe if I had been a bit more confrontational, hostile reporter along the way, I would have gotten a few more stories. But I wouldn't have gotten the big one.