The risk of falling prey to political manipulators is an occupational hazard for journalists. It is particularly so for those whose beats provide off-the-record background briefings and other tantalizing opportunities for access to powerful people in high places—for example, senior policy makers at the White House, Pentagon, State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, etc. Access to power and the “scoops” that can result is a rush for driven journalists in cutthroat competition for front page real estate and the glory and money that can accrue.
A notorious case in point, of course, is former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who said “I was wrong because my sources were wrong” after her misleading reporting on Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs helped the Bush administration build its case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Though a relatively innocuous example, an email exchange between then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s spokesman and a journalist for the Atlantic provides a rare and revealing insider glimpse at the practice of Washington hacks cozying up to powerful sources.
Atlantic politics editor Marc Ambinder emailed Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines on July 15, 2009 asking for an advance copy of a speech Clinton would be giving at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Reines responded by offering the speech, but on three conditions:
1) You in your own voice describe them as “muscular”
2) You note that a look at the CFR seating plan shows that all the envoys—from Holbrooke to Mitchell to Ross—will be arrayed in front of her, which in your own clever way you can say certainly not a coincidence and meant to convey something
3) You don’t say you were blackmailed!
Ambinder immediately responded, “got it,” and complied: the first paragraph of his scoop for the Atlantic dutifully called Clinton’s speech “muscular” and noted that the three envoys would be “seated in front of Clinton, subordinate to Clinton.” The piece’s headline: “Hillary Clinton’s ‘Smart Power’ Breaks Through.”
Gawker’s J.J. Trotter reported on the email exchange, which Gawker obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request for Reines’ email exchanges with journalists. In the Washington Post, media critic Erik Wemple called the exchange a “Beltway bucket of slime.”
Miller, in her 2015 autobiography The Story: A Reporter’s Journey, continued to deny any fundamental professional lapse in relying on dubious sources. By contrast, Ambinder, who has since left the Atlantic to become a Los Angeles-based writer and producer, honorably acknowledged his error to Gawker:
It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable today. And when I look at that email record, it is a reminder to me of why I moved away from all that. The Atlantic, to their credit, never pushed me to do that, to turn into a scoop factory. In the fullness of time, any journalist or writer who is confronted by the prospect, or gets in the situation where their journalism begins to feel transactional, should listen to their gut feeling and push away from that.
Being scrupulous at all times will not help you get all the scoops, but it will help you sleep at night. At no point at The Atlantic did I ever feel the pressure to make transactional journalism the norm.