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July 7, 2009

Journalism’s access scandal — bigger than WaPo’s pay-to-play “Salons”

Filed under: Commentary,journalism,News — editorialconsultant @ 12:43 pm
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Several media town criers were shocked, shocked that The Washington Post planned private dinners at its publisher’s home to bring together journalists, industry leaders, and government officials to talk off-the-record about the pressing issues of the day. From Politico’s reporting on the flyer, advertising the “salons”:

“Underwriting Opportunity: An evening with the right people can alter the debate,” says the one-page flier. “Underwrite and participate in this intimate and exclusive Washington Post Salon, an off-the-record dinner and discussion at the home of CEO and Publisher Katharine Weymouth. … Bring your organization’s CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders …

“Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it. What is guaranteed is a collegial evening, with Obama administration officials, Congress members, business leaders, advocacy leaders and other select minds typically on the guest list of 20 or less.

None of us wants our journalists to get so cozy with sources that the stories they write are altered by that access.

Except, that’s already the reality of much that passes for journalism, isn’t it?

Exhibit A is The Today Show interview done by Andrea Mitchell with Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor who quit because, she says, she’s not a quitter. Or, something like that. The so-called press conference Palin held on July 3rd was so incoherent, the world was left scratching its collective head.

We needed a real reporter to do some real reporting on the background of the decision. What we got was Andrea Mitchell, acting as a public relations flack for Palin.

After a few softball questions about the governor’s resignation, where Mitchell lets Sarah Palin spout unrebutted drivel, contradiction and falsehoods — sort of a mini-repeat of the July 3rd presser — what does Mitchell ask the Palins?

If she and Todd are instilling the values of fishing for salmon in their kids.

This is the problem with valuing access to sources over actual reporting. The latter is sacrificed for the former. Obviously, Mitchell knows enough about her subject to demand actual answers but she wants to be able to maintain access to the diva of Wasilla. But what good is access if this is what we get?

Matt Lauer’s most probing question for Mitchell, post-Palin interview was this:

“What time of day was that because, at this time of year in Alaska, it stays light until midnight?”

He ends with a comment that pretty much sums up the way Today handled the segment:

“We all want to know where you got a pair of waders, but that’s for another day, Andrea.”

Yeah, right, that’s what we all want to know.

A few years back, I resigned from the ASJA First Amendment committee because a slim majority wanted to give Judith Miller a “Conscience in Media” award. Miller was refusing to reveal her White House sources for bogus information about the leaking of a CIA operative’s name and had been jailed for contempt. Was Miller exhibiting courage and adherence to First Amendment principles? Or was she protecting her access to high-level sources — access that she valued despite the obvious: her high level sources hadn’t told her the truth?

My opinion then, as now, was that the real issue was access — and that it was valued more highly than accuracy.

Which brings me back to the point of this post. Access is a commodity in Washington, D.C.,  and other places, and media bigwigs and their sources trade that commodity at the expense of consumers of news.  The Washington Post salons were a natural outgrowth of that reality. As long as we’re shocked, shocked by a flyer that tells it like it is, but we shrug at the actions of Miller, Mitchell, and hundreds of others, we won’t get real news. We’ll get warped public relations extravaganzas, stage-managed by those being reported about.

– Anita Bartholomew

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