Access to Important Sources Often Means Journalists Avoid Controversial Stories

Access is everything to reporters. We want people to talk to us, to share confidences and documents, to point us to others who will do the same. But there's a price: Don't burn your sources ... which can mean ignoring a story that will prompt the subject

Access is everything to reporters. We want people to talk to us, to share confidences and documents, to point us to others who will do the same. The closer those people are to the decisions about which we write the more energy we put into developing and maintaining those relationships.

Bob Woodward would have been forgotten after Watergate but for his access to high administration officials whose comments help create and sell the books for which he’s known today.

Access to a president can make or enhance a career. Losing it suggests a future at a weekly paper in the Dakotas. That’s why there is an unseemly scramble for the front row seat lost by veteran Helen Thomas at White House briefings.

One can only marvel at the access to Supreme Court justices and clerks who enrich Nina Totenberg’s NPR reports.

As in any community, Cincinnati reporters have (or seek) access to people they or their editors see as vital: the mayor or council members, judges, police chiefs, political activists, educators, religious leaders, activists, players, coaches and managers.

Winning access improves the chances of success: more information for audiences, a positive impression on editors, a chance at prizes. Or, put another way, praise, pay and promotion. At its best, the ability to win and maintain access underlies a journalistic meritocracy.

But there's a price: Don’t burn your sources. That can mean ignoring a story that will prompt the subject to slam the door — figuratively or actually — in a reporter’s face. That can mean loss of access, with the problems this suggests.

No reporter will ignore a story that’s so much bigger than the source — one that wins praise, pay, prizes and promotion — even at the cost of angering the subject and their friends and colleagues. But pissy little stories that can create weeks of acrimony? Skip it. If the competition runs that pissy little story, the cost/benefit argument can save the day for a reporter who walked away from the opportunity to embarrass a source.

That might be one reason it took Rolling Stone to reveal the contempt for the president and other civilians to whom U.S. military officials in Afghanistan report. Rolling Stone isn’t worried about continuing access to military or White House big shots. Rolling Stone probably won’t be welcome for years, as long as today’s senior military men are on active duty.

Other reporters — who must have known about the top officers’ attitudes — will feel the chill. At least they have a defense: They didn’t dip Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his colonels in shit.

Chances are mainstream news media editors conspired with their reporters to ignore the contempt and tension between McChrystal’s staff and Obama’s top advisers. To do the story would have burned their sources and diminished their access to where it might have been difficult to their job in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon already is clamping down on reporter access to senior officers; requests for interviews worldwide must be cleared through commisars in the public relations branch and, I assume, by top civilian officials whether in the Defense Department or White House.

In a way, Rolling Stone and the White House/Pentagon reactions recall the animosity shown to reporters by officers who served in Vietnam. Many blamed the news media for the loss of home front support for their war. It wasn’t until the Pentagon decided to embed journalists with combat troops in Iraq that this antipathy began to ease.

Scooped by Rolling Stone, some national media attacked writer Michael Hastings and the magazine. None was more unwittingly embarrassing than CBS News Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan. I missed her self-lacerating turn on CNN's Reliable Sources, but Huffington Post filled me in.

Host Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post asked Logan if there is an "unspoken agreement that you're not going to embarrass (the troops) by reporting insults and banter."

"Absolutely," she said. "Yes ... there is an element of trust." That’s Newspeak for “Don’t burn a source.”

It recalls another, far worse offense by CNN's chief news executive Eason Jordan. In an inexplicable 2003 New York Times op-ed column, he said, “Over the last dozen years I made 13 trips to Baghdad to lobby the government to keep CNN's Baghdad bureau open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders. Each time I visited, I became more distressed by what I saw and heard — awful things that could not be reported.”

Notice that he strove “to keep CNN’s Baghdad bureau open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders.” That’s access. Jordan also said CNN killed stories to protect his Baghdad staff.

An exchange on NPR’s On the Media probed cosy relationships that access breeds. Host Bob Garfield began, saying, “As a freelancer, Hastings isn't bound by the same unofficial rules that beat reporters often live by. Jamie McIntyre was a beat reporter, the senior Pentagon correspondent for CNN, for 16 years. This is his theory of why such lofty military officials would speak so candidly in front of a reporter.”

McIntyre: “They got very comfortable with Michael Hastings and believe that he would probably follow the convention of many beat reporters and not report some of the hijinks that go on behind the scenes.”

Garfield: “Let me ask you now to describe the difference in the dynamics between a beat reporter on the defense beat or any other and someone who parachutes in for one story.”

McIntyre: “Well, the difference is the sort of one-off reporter doesn't need to worry about whether he's going to get future access or not, whereas the beat reporters, like when I was at CNN, I needed access. I needed to be able to get to the key people to find out what was going on when bombs were dropping or things were happening. And the way you do that is you forego reporting all of the sort of off-color jokes or informal banter that goes on when you follow these guys around, focus on the big picture, and they begin to trust you. As a result, when you need to know what's going on, you get access.

“If you do what Michael Hastings does, they're never going to talk to him again. Of course, he, he doesn't care. The fallout from that though is that they may also not talk to a lot of other reporters as well.”

Garfield: “Not reporting the off-color jokes, the intemperate comments and so forth, you call that the dirty little secret of beat reporting.”

McIntyre: “You know, it implies this sort of overly cozy relationship. These military officials that we're following around, they're not our friends. We're frenemies, we're not friends. You know, one thing we've learned from this whole episode is that military officers cannot tell you what they're really thinking without being in peril of losing their jobs. So the dirty little secret is, yeah, we sort of informally agree not to report a lot of things that we see and hear, some of it for legitimate security reasons and some of it because it could just be embarrassing. And the tradeoff is we get a continued relationship with these people and we can get information.

“And by the way, it is information that we can still hold them accountable for. It's just that we sort of cover them.”

There also is the implicit link between Establishment news media (The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS and others) and the military. No editor wants to get on the wrong side of the people who run the biggest story of two decades.

After idolizing McChrystal (and Petreus), editors would appear foolish if their journalists reported feet of clay.

Curmudgeon Notes

• Mea culpa. I read the Rolling Stone article on McChrystal online. I didn’t buy the magazine. Worse, I read it on a site that lifted the entire article without Rolling Stone permission. For some things, I’d wait. My news junkie juices overflowed on this. I wanted to read the whole thing, not just quotes on web sites with axes to grind. Maybe I’ll subscribe (again) as penance. I hope they have a teaser rate.

• Careless headlines on the Page 1 Enquirer story last week misled readers and had to fuel conspiracy buffs who often mistake dumb mistakes for evidence of plots. The big black type said, “Poll: Ohioans like immigration law.” The smaller headline immediately below said, “Most want state to adopt Arizona restrictions.” Wrong and wrong.

Here’s what Howard Wilkinson wrote in the first paragraph: “Nearly half of Ohio voters approve of the immigration law Arizona enacted recently and most of those voters would like to see Ohio have the same kind of law, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll.” “Nearly half” means a minority of Ohio voters polled like the Arizona law. Even if most of that minority of Ohio voters would like Ohio to do the same, it’s still not “most” Ohioans.

The Enquirer looked at social fraternity/sorority culture at Miami University and missed the big story: What it called “debauchery” in its Page 1 headline is a selling point among prospective and current students. Ohio University was known as the party school while Miami traded on its reputation for academics … among parents. Kids knew otherwise.

In both state schools, underage drinking is common, cops are deferential if not docile and university officials are timid, unsure and complicit. That’s why Miami officials, in one way or another, made it clear to The Enquirer that image is the issue. When numbers rule, no one wants to discourage students from enrolling. Who wants to be the assistant dean who has to try to put a good face on the smallest freshman class in years?

Until the recent outbreak of bad public behavior by Miami undergrads, someone has to die to elicit even a momentary tut-tut. Enquirer stories would have been stronger if undergrad voices were louder; at least two-thirds of Miami students aren’t in the Greek system and were free to talk even if sorority and fraternity members were gagged. Instead, we got the usual suspects and platitudes.

• Years ago, when I wrote about higher ed for The Enquirer, I asked an official at Miami why fraternities and sororities that got into drunken trouble seemed to be historically white college organizations. The official said high-achieving black undergrads often come from teetotaler homes and churches. They party hard at Miami, but alcohol-fueled fraternity/sorority debauchery just isn’t their thing.

• Even Miami officials quoted in The Enquirer made it clear how loosely the school monitors and disciplines fraternities and sororities. That’s not new on U.S. campuses. My own urban, state university had a Student Activities Bureau under the Dean of Students that majored in hypocrisy. An approved fraternity application for a party never mentioned beer, but if you were caught having a party without SAB party approval you were in trouble. If you had an approved party, the SAB didn’t care if you had beer. Few fraternity members or guests met the 21-year-old state drinking age. And on Saturday afternoons, it didn’t take a weatherman to tell which way the kegs were rolling.

Here’s an example of what a daily paper — willing and able to commit resources for weeks — can do. Don’t look to local TV news or bloggers/aggregators for this kind of journalism. The gruesome story, as told in The Memphis Commerical Appeal, begins in many ways in Southern Ohio. Kristina Goetz, a former Enquirer reporter, worked on it with two colleagues for six weeks.

• Poynter Online said Gannett stepped into the world of paid content today with what Gannett termed "a small-scale test" at The Tallahassee Democrat, The Greenville (S.C.) News and The (St. George, Utah) Spectrum. The fee for online-only is $9.95 a month; Web access bundled with a print subscription varies by market. In Tallahassee, seven-day home delivery (with Web access) costs $20. An online day pass costs $2.

Kate Marymont, vice president of news for Gannett's Community Publishing Division, told Poynter that "we know this is not the model, this is a small-scale test." Marymont said "we weighed a lot of factors" in selecting the three sites from the division's 81 papers, including "what's at risk." She added: "We didn't want to start at our very largest properties."

Gannett wants to test the power of niche content to support online fees (think Clemson football coverage in Greenville and Florida State in Tallahassee) as well as the consequence of a pay wall in a smaller market like St. George (19,919 daily; 23,413 Sunday). Gannett also owns USA Today, The Enquirer, The Lousiville Courier Journal and The Indianapolis Star.

• An exercise in Newspeak is the decision in national news media during W’s presidency to stop calling waterboarding “torture” in news stories. It’s become an “enhanced interrogation technique” or something else but not “torture.” Basically, waterboarding begins drowning a restrained prisoner. The purpose is to elicit information, so waterboarding is meant to stop short of death.

Students at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy looked at the four U.S. newspapers with the highest daily circulation. They reported finding “a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5 percent (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3 percent of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002 to 2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4 percent). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8 percent of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6 percent). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

“In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8 percent of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69 percent (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3 percent of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4 percent of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.”

According to Yahoo News, a New York Times spokesman called the study “misleading,” but Yahoo said the paper acknowledged that political circumstances played a role in the paper's usage calls. “As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture,” the Times spokesman said. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.”

Yahoo also quoted the Times spokesman saying editorials and columnists “regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture. So that's what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.”

• Let’s see, 11 accused Russian spies. The alleged paymaster is freed on bail and can’t be found. Neighbors praise one couple’s gardening. Much of the news media focuses on accused spy Anna Chapman, who is a Soviet spy’s daughter, young, attractive and of whom many photos — including two topless — are available from her British ex-husband and Facebook.

• Further evidence that Britain doesn’t want you to visit. The Independent reports the latest detention of someone photographing a public building or event: “Two police officers stopped a teenage photographer from taking pictures of an Armed Forces Day parade and then claimed they did not need a law to detain him.”

The parade was one of 350 public marches held to mark Armed Forces Day, an event created last year amid criticism that the country didn't do enough to honor its military. The paper said Jules Mattsson was photographing police cadets when he was ordered to stop and give his personal details by an adult London police cadet officer, who claimed Mattsson needed parental permission to capture images of the cadets. After arguing his rights in a series of protracted legal debates with officers, Mattsson says he was detained for breaching the peace until the parade passed.

London police often have been criticized for their “heavy handed approach towards photographers in the capital,” the paper continued. “The student … decided to record his confrontation on his mobile phone, providing an insight into the legal arguments that the officers were using to justify stopping him from taking photographs.” The audio begins with an officer arguing it’s illegal to take photographs of children. He then claims that it’s illegal to take images of army members and police officers.

(As a former London resident and occasional visitor, let me suggest that any such ban would include the daily Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, the annual Trooping of the Colors during which the Queen celebrates her official birthday, Princes William and Henry on active duty and returning combat units marching to flag-waving applause through their hometowns. All of these are extensively covered by papers, TV and online.)

The Independent said British press freedom laws include no restriction on photography of children, police or armed forces in a public space. There is new legislation to protect only the identities of police officers working undercover or in instances where an officer genuinely believes a photographer is collecting data for terrorist purposes.

The paper continued, “In the audio recording, when asked by Mr. Mattsson what law police were using to detain him and ask for details, one officer replies: ‘We don’t have to have a law.’ ” Mattsson was told by a second officer that he is now “considered a threat under the Terrorism Act” and and detained until the parade passed.

The paper said Mattsson’s encounter came a day after London police paid two photojournalists 3,500 each plus legal costs for a similar incident. In a public apology the police “admitted that its officers had ‘failed to respect press freedom’ of the two journalists.”

The paper added, “Police forces across the country were told to stop using anti-terror laws to question and search innocent photographers after The Independent ran a campaign last year highlighting how legislation was being regularly misused. But groups representing photographers say the message is often struggling to get through to some front line officers.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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