07 November 2016

The Dirty Secret of Journalism

Not only can you buy off reporters, but you can do so with some free food and booze:
When Robert Moses, the notorious New York master builder, wanted to cow the journalists who covered him, he knew he didn’t have to harangue or threaten his way to a favorable story. Food and drink did the trick. A reporter on the Moses beat, whether covering the opening of a new hydroelectric power dam or a row of toll booths, could expect to be treated to a fountain of liquor, a 40-foot buffet table, or a chartered airplane packed with celebrities. In addition to these Dionysian ribbon cuttings, Moses hosted “working” lunches for the press, a way to advance his agenda while offering special access.

“Hospitality has always been a potent political weapon,” Robert Caro wrote in The Power Broker, his seminal biography of Moses. “Moses used it like a master.”

This practice continues unabated, as made clear in a recent batch of hacked emails released by WikiLeaks. The meals may be smaller and the settings less lavish, but the goals remain the same: for a person in a position of power, in this case Hillary Clinton, to groom a friendlier press corps. Non-journalists, as well as conservative outlets, reacted with anger and incredulity at emails—the Clinton campaign has not disputed their validity—that showed the campaign setting up off-the-record dinners and cocktails with John Podesta, the campaign chairman, and Joel Benenson, her chief strategist. (The Huffington Post had reported on the Podesta meeting previously.) Journalists mostly shrugged at the revelations.

Their dismissal is misguided. The emails may highlight business as usual, but it is a business practice that has helped stoke distrust of the press in 2016 and has propelled a narrative, pushed by Donald Trump, that the mainstream media is in the bag for Clinton. The implications of that will linger long after Election Day.

On April 9th, 2015—shortly before Clinton officially announced she was running for president—Podesta cooked for at least 28 reporters at his Washington DC home. The reporters came from leading national outlets like the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NBC. According to the leaked email, the dinner had five goals for the Clinton campaign: “Getting to know” reporters closely covering Clinton; “setting expectations” for the announcement and “launch period”; “framing” Clinton’s message and the race; “demystifying key players” on Clinton’s campaign; and “having fun and enjoying good cooking.”


If the reporters understand, implicitly or explicitly, that these events exist solely to advance the agenda of a particular candidate, why show up? Why spend a night in the spin zone over Podesta’s creamy risotto, knowing the campaign is trying to co-opt you? If reporters can document with outrage the ways in which lobbyists fete elected officials, why is the practice okay when reporters are on the receiving end?


Before I go on, let me say that I have not always practiced what I’m preaching here. For two years, I was a member of the New York City Hall press corps and attended several off-the-record parties at Gracie Mansion, the lavish mayoral residence on the Upper East Side. I went because, in addition to thinking the visit would be good for building sources, it felt nice to amble around a mansion with a buzz. Important people were around me, so I felt important. I regret going now and I don’t intend to show up again. No knock against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hors d’oeuvres, all reimbursed by my former employers at the New York Observer, but it makes far more sense for the mayor to host one of these soirees than for me to show up. I can—and should—do my job despite them.


As Caro understood, the best reporting is done on the margins, away from the siren charms of power and prestige. “It is more difficult to challenge a man’s facts over cocktails than over a conference table,” Caro wrote. “More difficult to flatly give the lie to a statement over a gleaming white tablecloth, filet mignon, and fine wine than it would have been to do so over a hard-polished board-room and legal pads.”
BTW, apparently John McCain 's political operation was well known for keeping the alcohol flowing, which might explain that whole "Straight Talk Express" myth tat the press ran with for such a long time.


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