Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Fourth Estate and Accountability

Glenn Greenwald has a great piece that sort of wraps up the whole debate that's been out there in the blogosphere lately, about a party thrown by the Democratic National Committee that hosted a bunch of journalists, where much fun and mayhem ensued. Ed Henry, who is CNN's senior White House correspondent, has been very public about how much he enjoyed getting shot at with a Super-Soaker by Rahm Emanuel. I won't do any independent linking to stories, as Glenn's piece does a great job of that.

Greenwald is, of course, disgusted by this display of fraternization between the press and the White House. His money quote:
With some accidental exceptions, the corporations which own these media outlets don't choose people for these positions who want to or who will perform these accountability functions. They choose the ones who have no interest in doing so, no ability to do so, and who simply won't -- and thus don't. [NBC's Meet the Press host David] Gregory and Henry don't succeed in their corporations despite their failure to do their jobs of holding government officials accountable; they succeed because they do their job, which doesn't include that function.
Ouch. What I really don't understand is how prominent journalists forget everything they were ever taught when first learning their trade.

When I was a reporter at the UCLA Daily Bruin, I covered a body called The Communications Board. This body oversaw all the student-run media on campus, and was comprised of students, faculty, and university administration personnel. One night, after a meeting of the Board that went fairly late such that the local buses were no longer running, I was offered and accepted a ride to my car by a student member of the board, who was also driving home another student member. The three of us knew each other outside of our respective jobs, but had not been friendly with each other before any of us had found ourselves in a journalist/subject relationship. Still, I thought nothing of sitting in his back seat for 10 minutes rather than walking 45 minutes after midnight to my car, which was parked two miles off campus (I didn't have a campus parking permit and had to take the bus in).

The next day, while at the Bruin office working on my story, I told my editor how the meeting had gone late and that the board member was nice enough to drive me to my car. She very clearly admonished me for doing so, saying that it was wrong for a reporter and the subject of his reporting to be social with each other, as that might influence the objectivity of the story. In fact, the issue was elevated all the way to the editorial board and the paper's faculty advisor, and it was determined that I could no longer work that beat; I was immediately reassigned. At first I was pretty astonished and a little disappointed, mostly because my new beat was less eventful. But in subsequent conversations with the faculty advisor I came to understand that journalists must preserve that separation if they are ever going to get the real story. If there is fraternization -- "getting to know [each other] as people," as it were -- then when a crucial story comes about, a journalist is now compromised because, having friendly relations with his subject, he might be tempted to soften his approach, protect his subject, and not ask the tough questions. It's why judges recuse themselves from cases where there might be a conflict of interest between them and the subject of the case.

Now, with prominent media folks becoming celebrities with entertainment value (e.g., Wolf Blitzer, David Greene, Brit Hume, Bob Woodward), forgoing that status in pursuit of a good story is a very rare thing indeed. Now, they get to hobnob with the political, entertainment, and business elites they cover, and think nothing of the potential for a compromised level of objectivity.

For more, read the exchange between David Greene and White House adviser David Axelrod later in Greenwald's piece. Greene states that the White House and British Petroleum are "partners" in cleaning up the Gulf oil spill, and asks Axelrod if the White House trusts BP's CEO, Tony Hayward. Axelrod, clearly frustrated with the question, categorically states that there is no partnership and that the White House's role is to hold BP accountable for cleaning up the spill, and that trust, or the character of the CEO, is essentially irrelevant. Perfect illustration of my point above.

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