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It’s Called a Spine, not a Conscience

I’ve been watching the media reaction to Marcy’s “Putting a Face . . .” post. The first day, there were a lot of “Wow – read this” tweets going around on twitter, but now the more reflective pieces are coming out, like yesterday’s Margaret Sullivan piece in the Style section of the Washington Post entitled “A journalist’s conscience leads her to reveal her source to the FBI. Here’s why.” On the whole, it’s a pretty good piece, but Sullivan makes two absolutely critical errors.

First, right at the top, Sullivan doesn’t seem to understand that all sources are not created equal, though Marcy tries to correct her:

It’s pretty much an inviolable rule of journalism: Protect your sources.

Reporters have gone to jail to keep that covenant.

But Marcy Wheeler, who writes a well-regarded national security blog, not only revealed a source — she did so to the FBI, eventually becoming a witness in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of President Trump’s possible connections to Russia.

“On its face, I broke one of the cardinal rules of journalism, but what he was doing should cause a source to lose protection,” Wheeler told me in a lengthy phone interview.

At least Sullivan put Marcy’s “should” in italics, but for the rest of the piece she seems to have forgotten that it was there.

As I read it, Marcy’s post was not primarily about the investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election, though that is what has gotten a lot of the attention. What she was really talking about was the practice  — or should I say “malpractice”? — of journalism. Woven into the entire post, Marcy laid out how she wrestled with a very basic question: What do you do, as a journalist, when a confidential source lies to you?

Marcy’s answer begins by distinguishing between different kinds of sources. Some tell you the truth. Some tell you something that they think is true, but it turns out to be wrong. And then there are some that tell you lies. Granting all of these sources uncritical confidentiality to protect your reputation as a journalist is as dangerous as telling a woman abused by her spouse to “protect her marriage” by staying with the abuser.  “Protecting your sources” when those sources undermine your work and reputation ought not mean “protecting your abuser.” Protecting a source uncritically is just asking to get used and abused, over and over again. See “Russert, Tim.”

The second thing that Sullivan missed is that Marcy was also talking to sources — actual and potential. From the end of Sullivan’s piece, with emphasis added:

Wheeler told me she believed herself to be “uniquely informed” about something that mattered a great deal.

In their reporting, journalists talk to criminals all the time and don’t turn them in.

Reporters aren’t an arm of law enforcement.

They properly resist subpoenas and fight like hell not to share their notes or what they know because doing so would compromise their independence and their ability to do their work in the future.

Wheeler knows all that — and believes in it. But she still came forward, not because of a subpoena but because of a conscience.

As Drezner told me, “She would not do this on a whim.”

And as Wheeler put it, “I believe this is one of those cases where it’s important to hold a source accountable for his actions.”

Marcy said it right there, but Sullivan missed it. What Marcy wrestled with, and shared in her post, was how she chose to do just that. She went to the FBI as a way of holding an unreliable source accountable AND as a way to protect her honest sources from a broad, wide-ranging governmental search that could potentially come down the road.

At its core, “Putting a Face . . .” is a journalist telling the world of potential sources two things, that I might paraphrase like this:

First, I take my work seriously, and that means protecting folks who come to me with information. If you share something with me in confidence, something that helps me do my job to get important stories out, I will protect you with all I’ve got.

Second, don’t screw with me. It’s one thing to tell me something you thought was correct that later proves not to be true. That happens. But if I learn that you deliberately lied to me in an effort to harm others, and you attacked my workplace, I am going to burn your ass. Count on it.

If burning sources that lie to you is not a cardinal rule of journalism, it damn well ought to be. I suspect that Marcy’s honest sources will respect her more for this, and her dishonest ones will be very very nervous. Isn’t that something that all journalists ought to strive for?

Think about it like this: if Devin Nunes, Trey Gowdy, and the rest of the House GOP knew that the journalists to whom they spread lies, off the record, would be willing to burn them if the journalists discovered that they were being lied to and used, do you think they’d be so eager to lie?

Sullivan lauded Marcy for being a journalist with a conscience — which she is, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Marcy is a journalist with a spine.

photo h/t to bixentro, and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.o Generic license.

A Tale of Celebrity Bon Vivant Civil Servants and Access Journalism

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 12.27.12 PMThere is a distinct problem in this country with excessive inbreeding of politicians, lobbyists and journalists. In a country where so many are now ruled by so few in power, it is becoming, if not already become, the biggest threat to American democracy. I would add in corporations, but, heck, who do you think the politicians, lobbyists and journalists represent at this point?

Now, corporations and their money through their mouthpiece lobbyists have long had a stranglehold on politics, whether through the corps themselves or their wealthy owners. But the one saving mechanism has historically been claimed to be the “Fourth Estate” of the American press who were there on behalf of the people as a check on power. But what if the Fourth Estate becomes, in fact, part of the power? What then?

What if the crucial check on federal and state power is by journalists who are little more than stenographers clamoring for access and/or co-opted social friends and elites with the powers that be? What if the sacrosanct civil servants of this country are nothing but Kardashian like shills out for a free gilded ride before they leave office to cash in with private sector riches befitting their holiness?

Golly, if only there was an example of this incestuous degradation. Oh, wait, get a load of this just put up by Kate Bennett’s KGB File at Politico:

In a generally stay-at-home administration, one member of the Obama Cabinet is proving to be the toast of the town. Jeh Johnson, the oh-so-serious-on-the-outside secretary of Homeland Security, is fast becoming Washington’s No. 1 social butterfly, dining out at posh restaurants like CityCenter’s DBGB, as he did last week with a small group that included Amy Klobuchar, Steny Hoyer, CNN’s Jim Sciutto, the New York Times’ Ashley Parker, author Aaron Cooley, and lobbyist Jack Quinn and his wife Susanna.

For a guy who’s been running a 24/7 war against terror since 2013, Johnson seems to have a lot of time to trip the light fantastic. He can often be seen enjoying regular catch-up sessions with BFF Wolf Blitzer at Café Milano (back table, naturally); and mingling at black-tie soirées, such as the Kennedy Center Spring Gala, the Opera Ball, or a champagne-fueled VIP garden party at Mount Vernon to toast French-American relations, all of which Johnson attended—and stayed at beyond the requisite cocktail-hour schmooze.
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“There’s rarely an invitation he’ll turn down,” says an aide to Johnson, who prefers to remain anonymous, of his boss’s penchant for spending three-to-four evenings a week at social functions — and actually enjoying them.

I am not going to bother to dissect that, it speaks all too clearly for itself. And it is hard to figure which is more pukeworthy, the bon vivant civil servant or the elitism displayed by the supposed watcher last bastion journalists. It is all of the same cloth.

What’s wrong in Washington DC? Here you go. When the pathology on the boneyard of American democracy is run, this vignette will appear.

Maybe this is why Tom Vilsack could find a spare couple of hours out of one of his days to explain in a deposition why he and the Obama Administration knee jerkily demanded Shirley Sherrod’s resignation based upon a crank fraudulent video by a schlock like Andrew Breitbart.

Because “Executive Privilege” now means “Privileged Executives” who can party all night with their elitist journalistic pals and screw the rest of the government, and people it serves, during the day. Just like the Founders envisioned obviously.