David Cay Johnston believes the Chronicle should have named the official who complained about the paper posting a video of protesters at an Obama fundraiser. “To let government officials complain anonymously is to treat the government as a power unto itself rather than a creation of the people (see Constitution, preamble),” he writes. “Why did editors Ward Bushee and Phil Bronstein go along with granting the government official who complained the privilege of not being named? If no privilege was granted why do they withhold these crucial facts from readers?” In his letter to Romenesko, Johnston also is critical of “amateurs” in the White House press office. || Read the full letter.
From DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: The erosion of the most basic journalism standards is vividly illustrated today by the San Francisco Chronicle’s appalling coverage of a story about itself and the Obama White House.
The story also reminds us of the continuing, though narrowed, disconnect between candidate Obama’s promises on open government and the conduct of his taxpayer-paid press operatives, some of whom continue to behave as if journalists are mere flacks.
First, the Chronicle.
Chronicle Washington correspondent Carolyn Lochhead reports that “the White House threatened to exclude” the paper from pooled coverage of Bay Area events for violating White House pool reporter rules because Carla Marinucci of the Chronicle took video of an anti-Obama protest over Private Bradley Manning. The Chronicle posted the video at its website the next day, but bizarrely does not have it on the page where Lochhead’s article appears today.
Those rules require print reporters to stick to taking notes and forbid them from posting images, audio or video even when citizens around them are using recording devices.
Reporters who agree to rules must abide by them or reasonably expect sanctions for violating their promises. The time to complain about rules is in advance, before you give your word, even when the rules are stupid.
But which government official complained? And exactly what did this unnamed official say? And to whom did they complain? Lochhead does not tell readers. Instead Lochhead writes: “The White House press office would not speak on the record about the issue.”
The privilege of speaking in any way short of on the record by name and title is solely and exclusively in the control of the journalist.
Did the Chronicle grant the complaining official the privilege of complaining without taking responsibility for their words? Why would any journalist do that? All complaints (excluding psychiatric cases) should be heard, but never anonymous complaints from government officials. To let government officials complain anonymously is to treat the government as a power unto itself rather than a creation of the people (see Constitution, preamble).
Why did editors Ward Bushee and Phil Bronstein go along with granting the government official who complained the privilege of not being named? If no privilege was granted why do they withhold these crucial facts from readers?
Are Bushee and Bronstein in fear of the administration? Evidently not, as they ran a story. So what could they be thinking in withholding this information from their readers? Or not thinking, perhaps?
If Lochhead, Bushee, Brownstein or some other Chronicle journalist did grant an anonymity privilege before hearing the complaint they should stand up, acknowledge their bush league error and tell readers about this mistake.
If no such privilege was granted before the complaint was made then the official should be named and his or her exact words reported, as well as to whom the complaint(s) were made.
And even if the privilege of was granted as to name then there is no reason not to quote the precise words of the complaint, as well as telling how high up the complaint came (White House press? Secret Service? A third party?), how it was delivered – phone, email, mail or in person – and when.
Among other things this would allow readers to judge for themselves if the official government complaint constituted a “threat,” as the Chronicle reports and editorializes about, or a mere admonition that the Chronicle must promise to abide by whatever rules it voluntarily agreed to.
Again: the journalist, not the source, controls the contours of the communication. If you give your word you may have to go to jail to defend it.
Whether any communication is on background or on deep background is entirely in the control of the journalist. However, the journalist also must take responsibility for her actions. “Off the record” makes information useless, so when some says that is their wish it is useful to spend a moment explaining the variations of less than fully on the record attribution so the other person understands these crucial, but subtle, issues.
Reporters should be careful about granting any privilege, insisting on good reasons (the safety of life, whistleblowing). When a government official makes a complaint they should be told their complaint will be heard in full, but fully on the record and if otherwise then readers, listeners and viewers deserve a full explanation.
Privilege is granted before, not after, words are spoken.
The citizen who rarely speaks with a reporter may be due more leeway, but anyone in a high government post such as a White House press job knows the rules and should be held to them.
The Chronicle also needs to tell readers the reasons it broke its word when it agreed to the pool coverage rules, rather than doing the honorable thing: complain first and if you cannot abide by the rules either do not participate in the pool or declare your intentions. If the Chronicle did complain then readers should be told about that.
To be clear, the White House rule here is incredibly outdated and is now stupid, but if you choose to violate your word then you must assume full responsibility for it.
The Chronicle needs to publish a corrective naming the official who made the complaint with details or explaining why it cannot do so without behaving dishonorably. And the top editors need to demonstrate leadership on this basic issue of attribution and identification.
Now, the Obama administration.
Candidate Obama promised a fresh era of transparency and openness after eight years of unnamed spokesman, anti-robot technology to hide official information from search engines, outing an undercover CIA agent and other conduct inimical to a free society and official accountability.
A week after the inauguration I reported on the amateur-hour, controlling and withholding White House press operation for the Columbia Journalism Review online.
Some critics argued it was much too soon to raise such issues. Since then a number of other journalists have written about the same and other problems with Obama’s White House press operation, which is heavily staffed by people with no experience as working reporters and who sometimes treat reporters as if they were paid flacks working for the administration.
I have found at cabinet agency public information shops that questions about the reasons information is sought, and refusal to provide information because of the expectation that a report will be critical, persists in the agencies, despite the candidate’s promises. Obama should be held strictly accountable for these failures since he set a standard with voters.
From Nixon through GWBush I always got White House press operations on the record by name. Only Obama press aides sometimes continue to try and speak without identifying themselves fully and asserting a pre-emptive right to determine what is less than fully on the record.
A White House reporter, since departed, told me last year about an inappropriate use of a backgrounder by the Obama White House. He said when he complained no one other reporter backed him up. He said some of the others later indicated they were fearful that being seen as antagonistic to the administration would put their jobs in danger at a time when thousands of journalists are out of work. There’s a word for that: cowardice.
The Obama White House needs to make its press operation just what the candidate promised and, if necessary, replace amateurs with people who have actually experience as journalists.
Reporters need to be clear and firm on standards of attribution.
Publishers, editors and producers need to tell their reporters in no uncertain terms that they are not to be cowed by this or any other administration and that hat will put their jobs in danger is not being aggressive about getting the facts on the record with officials being identified in full so they can be held accountable.
We all need to work against any further erosion of one of the most basic standards of journalism, work vital to making those we temporarily put in power accountable.
I hope those who read these words will email them to those who need to hear them – Obama, Daniel Pfeiffer, Jay Carney, Bronstein, Bushee and Lochhead among others — or print them out and post them in the newsroom, including the White House press room.
I invited Ward Bushee to respond. He says there were “off-the-record exchanges required by key people in the White
House communications office who told us it would remove our reporter, then threatened retaliation to Chronicle and Hearst reporters if we reported on the ban, and then recanted to say our reporter might not be removed afterall.” He adds that “If the White House has indeed decided not to ban our reporter, we would like an on-the-record notice that she will remain the San Francisco print pool reporter.”