Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Something Not To Worry About

I'm late to the kerfuffle over the White House press corps all having perverse incentives because they're all writing books, and so in order to get good access for their books, they're all willing to go soft on the administration.  Steve Clemons calls it corruption, as does Glenn Greenwald.  James Fallows doesn't use that kind of language, but says that the basic story "rings true" to him (and see his further comments on reporting on the White House).

I agree with Fallows, but I really don't think it's worth getting excited about.  The White House press corps won't ask tough questions?  They crave access?  This is supposed to be news?  Of course the White House press corps tries to get access, and as for breaking stories -- everyone knows it was Woodward and Bernstein, and not the White House press corps, that took the lead on Watergate.

I think part of the problem here is that observers, most certainly including a lot of the press, conceives of reporting as either (glamorized) adversarial journalism or (despised) stenography (captured perfectly, by the way, by Lisa and Bill at the press conference in which Jimmy James announces his run for the presidency).  The truth is that there's a lot of good and important reporting that doesn't really fall into either category.  Reporters are supposed to tell us what's going on, and often "what's going on" is not really hidden -- it consists neither in the stuff that politicians are trumpeting nor the stuff that they're covering up, but in lots of mundane things that are available for the asking, items that won't humiliate or threaten the president but would actually help readers and viewers understand what's happening.  In fact, there's plenty of excellent reporting in their vein out there, but critics tend to think that what's really valuable are the secrets that they are certain all administrations keep.  And, of course, such secrets often exist -- and great investigative reporting is obviously incredibly valuable.  It is a fallacy, however, to believe that an administration's secrets are the "real" story and that everything else is irrelevant.  More often, it's the "everything else" that's the real story.

If anything, my complaint about the save-it-for-the-book style of White House reporting isn't that it gives the president a free ride, or even that controversial items are only revealed long after the fact -- it's that non-controversial items are held for the book, too.  For example, the biggest question I had at various stages of the health care reform fight was the level and substance of White House involvement in Congressional negotiations.  We did get some coverage of it, but there were quite a few stories talking about negotiations between various Members of Congress that didn't let us know which if any White House staffers were there.  I can't know, but I suspect that we'll wind up reading about all of that later, and it will turn out that various reporters were very aware of the role that Phil Schilero or Nancy-Ann DeParle were playing (which one?  both? neither?  I don't know!  That's the problem).

The only other complaint I have is that I do think that several members of the White House press corps are pretty good reporters, and their skills are largely wasted on that beat.  That's too bad, but nothing new.

But as for the rest...look, the same market forces that have the White House press corps, which always tries to get access, even potentially more craven than usual are the market forces that give outside reporters a strong incentive to get the stories that the White House press corps can't and won't get.  Those kind of stories don't depend on access, anyway; they use sources, but sources who are motivated to leak things that the administration doesn't want aired, not sources who are motivated to make the president look good.  They also depend on the kinds of digging that are as easy or, most of the time, easier to do away from the White House than from inside it.  And they aren't subject to a bias far more pervasive than the book incentive, as this excellent Lane Wallace article explains.  Overall, I'd say that the "problem" of White House reporters writing books is a prime example of something not to worry about.


  1. I got a better link for your Lisa and Bill reference, on YouTube.

  2. Thanks. Fie on Chait's Lebowski obsession! My NewsRadio obsession is the superior Jonathan-blogging obsession. And I challenge Cohn and Zasloff and any other blogging Jonathans to match it -- but they can't!


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