Wednesday, June 18, 2008


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.


Mark T said...

I don’t know whether to call you “Billings Blog” or David.

You haven’t dissuaded me with your Gibbs story – he could have easily have spun you and carried out a personal vendetta. You could have happened upon the story yourself – why do you depend on public officials to give you your leads? If Gibbs was part of the corruption, we'd still not know about it. You shouldn't depend on public officials to do journalism for you.

Shouldn’t you be … what’s that word … probing? Better yet … “burrowing”? Said Pat Williams, “I can tell you from my viewpoint that spinning Montana’s newspapers was as easy as spinning a top. There's precious little congressional news that is actually broken by a Montana newspaper. That works to the advantage of the politician. Absolutely. When you are free from a burrowing press, you pretty much have clear sailing.”

Denny Rehberg comes to mind - no one in congress has more to gain from repeal of the estate tax as him. No Montana reporter has ever asked him about it. Someone should make him uncomfortable by asking him how much his family will benefit from that legislation.

Kemmick gets mad when I drag out that quote – I think it was supposed to be a one-use-only item. But it's from an insider (who oddly waited until he was out of office to say it) and it gets right down the larger point I was making in my rambling fashion - if journalists are doing their job, they are probing and burrowing – not waiting for public officials to hand them stories. If they are probing, and officials have something to hide, there is going to be discomfort and anger. That’s why I said they should be uncomfortable around one another.

We depend on journalists to burrow and expose self-interested public officials. It ain’t happenin’. When’s the last time a Montana reporter broke a story about one of our guys in DC?

Anyway, I say “you” generically. You're very busy, I realize. But don’t pretend that developing relationships with public officials is journalism. It may be part of it, but the burrowing part has to be there too. Public officials ought to be wary of you.

(If I had time to add by subtracting, I would ramble less. I don't rewrite much, and that makes me windy.)

Mark T said...

PS - the "FU" at the end of your title troubles me.

David said...

Of course Gibbs was spinning me. Why do you suppose people give tips to reporters?

And, of course, it would have been possible to get the Gibbs story without Gibbs. His memo was a public record, and a reporter who scoured every memo ever written at the courthouse might have turned it up. But who has time to do that?

You have to understand that for much of Pat Williams' career in Washington, no Montana reporter was covering him regularly. The Gazette used to contract with a student news service in Washington, made up by definition of people who were just learning the trade. The Trib, I think, relied on the Gannett capitol bureau, but that one bureau covered news for many, many papers, only one of which was in Montana. So what Williams said was right, I'm not sure it's relevant to a discussion of how reporters work. No reporter was at work there.

Reporters have no subpoena powers and limited methods of getting information:

1. From public documents and meetings.
2. From private documents and meetings that someone is willing to leak.
3. From "official" sources.
4. From unofficial sources, who may or may not have an ax to grind and may or may not know what they are talking about.

Three of those four methods are available only to reporters who develop working relationships with sources. The fourth -- relying on public documents -- is admirable and often helpful but also time consuming and sometimes misleading.