SPJ Reading Room
Drawing the line between the press and the source
By Steve Hallock
Guess who’s not coming to dinner.
All by itself, the decision by a news organization to stop attending banquets is no stunning development. But in the context of early 21st century journalism, in which reporters have been accused of cozying up to their sources to the extent that the public can be left wanting for news essential to a functioning democracy, the decision in April by the powers that be at The New York Times for newsroom staffers to stop attending the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a welcome shift toward journalistic independence.
Close source-reporter relationships are a bedrock of investigative reporting, but critics of such functions are correct when they complain that such get-togethers are evidence of a press that sometimes places the interests of its consumers in a position secondary to its official sources and business concerns.
The Times banquet boycott was announced not by newspaper editors or the publisher, but in columnist Frank Rich’s April 29 piece in which he accused many in the media of following in the footsteps of Vietnam War hawk Joe Alsop and unquestioningly accepting government source information.
The decision, Rich wrote, was "a crystallization of the press’s failures in the post-9/11 era." The dinner, he wrote, "illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media in its shows.
“After last weekend's correspondents' dinner, The Times decided to end its participation in such events,” Rich wrote. “But even were the dinner to vanish altogether, it remains but a yearly televised snapshot of the overall syndrome. The current White House, weakened as it is, can still establish story lines as fake as ‘Mission Accomplished’ and get a free pass.”
See, for example, the Lewis “Scooter” Libby case and the ease with which administration officials, angry over a New York Times op-ed piece putting the lie to their claim of Iraq trying to obtain nuclear arms manufacturing materials, planted a story in the syndicated column of Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak. The plant disclosed the identity of a CIA operative in apparent retaliation against her husband, who was the author of the Times piece.
Rich made reference in his column to the performance at last year’s dinner by cable television Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, who lampooned the press for coverage failures that included flawed reporting of events leading up to the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. Such failure included the mainstream media accepting the administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was working on development of nuclear weapons.
“Over the last five years, you people were so good, over tax cut, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming,” Colbert told the assembled reporters and government officials. “We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.
“But listen,” the faux news commentator continued, “let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”
Colbert’s performance reportedly got a cool reception not only from administration officials, some of whom walked out during his performance, but also from the press corps, which greeted many of his lines with silence – much like the journalistic silence that Colbert had addressed.
Internet response, though, was stupendous. Colbert got a standing ¬ – er, typing – ovation from Americans who massively hit on internet sites that featured the comedian’s performance. That sort of reaction is evidence of an American public disconnected from the American media. The problem here is not so much that the press doesn’t cover such important issues as government surveillance of citizens’ telephones and e-mails, shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Hospital, instances of prisoner abuse at government prisons or holding terrorist suspects in secret prisons overseas. It does. The problem, rather, is one of perception by the public of reporters and news organizations becoming too close to their sources at the expense of informing the public.
Chicago Tribune internet critic Steve Johnson correctly analyzed this problem
in a May 2 column in which he agreed with the decision by the Times to stop attending the correspondents’ banquet.
“Forward thinkers outside the press and in it have long criticized the dinner for highlighting an uncomfortably close relationship between the Washington press corps and the people whose work they’re supposed to be reporting on with skepticism and impartiality,” Johnson wrote. “As unseemly as politicians coming together to share laughs over serious (and, lately, deadly) policy matters has been the tradition of news organizations competing to land celebrity dinner guests, including some from the political world (USA Today brought embattled Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzalez, e.g.).”
This dinner and its representation of a press that is mighty cozy with those it covers is only part of an ongoing estrangement between the American public and its newspapers and broadcasters. And it is not a new phenomenon. Older press observers and critics will remember a press corps that buddied up to Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, drinking and playing cards with him as he carried on his demagogic anti-communist campaign of the 1950s – until a handful of newspaper reporters, and then CBS News’ Edward R. Murrow, unearthed the facts and some truth, exposing the McCarthy campaign as a sensational witch hunt.
But good for the Times in this particular instance. Turning down a meal is a welcome step away from the press’s questionable loyalties to sources and business and toward the readers that are its franchise.
The overall state of American journalism needs a whole lot more than a pass on dinner, but this is another subject certainly worthy of further consideration.
Former newspaper reporter and editor Steve Hallock, an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is author of “Editorial and Opinion: The Diminishing Marketplace of Ideas in Today’s News,” published in January by Praeger.