2006/02/11

Copy of letter to Time Magazine

John Dickerson being interviewed by Al Franken


First off, I agree with commentators who have stated that the whole era started by Bob Woodward, the whole idea that “If we get really close to our sources, we can get great scoops” has reached the end of its' useful life. If a whistleblower needs to reveal that, say, their supervisor is an arrogant, close-minded 24-year-old who is confusing his role with that of a KGB political officer, then the whistleblower will obviously need a way to access reporters and obviously needs to have his or her identity protected.


But for reporters to be cultivating close personal relationships with Bush Administration figures like Karl Rove is just sad. If Rove needs to get a story out, I assure you he'll find a way. There's simply no need for reporters to bend over backwards in order to make it easy for Rove to get his talking points out.


I'm not arguing Rove should be betrayed or outed, I'm arguing that reporters shouldn't be cultivating close relationships with people in his position in the first place. The situation with President Bush's story about foiling a 2002 plot to attack towers on the West Coast is one that demonstrates the usefulness of an arms-length relationship with ones' sources. Reporters who were not closely associated with the Bush Administration were able to dig up the fact that the mayor of LA didn't know anything about the alleged plot. The reporters with close personal relationships could tell the public what the Rovian talking points were and that's about it.


The whole Judith Miller story is a perfect example of a reporter getting all of these great, wonderful, fantastic “scoops”, in return for the devil's bargain of giving up her skepticism and allowing herself to be used to get out the Administration's talking points. She and Time Magazine appear to have acted like victims of the “Stockholm Syndrome” and everybody in both organizations acted like they all had to preserve the personal relationship that one or a few reporters had cultivated, even if it meant lying to the American public (or the functional equivalent thereof) by simply quoting Administration stories and denials as though there were no other side to the story.


Do Administration sources offer useful information behind closed doors that help reporters understand the story better and so report it better? Perhaps, but that understanding can't be shared with the public. If reporters instead got their info from Congresspeople or other folks who have received classified briefings, but who are speaking on the record, that might be a way to square the circle. You could receive information, all of which can be shared with the public, but it would be coming from an informed source who understands how it all fits together. If politicians don't wish to reveal how decisions are made or what goes into their decisions, then they're the primary losers as the public will lose faith in them. By giving reporters insights that reporters can't share, the public loses as reporters then lose sight of who they're responsible to and of how much information can be shared.


As a member of the public I ask you, please maintain an arms-length distance from your sources. There is absolutely no percentage whatsoever in getting so close to these people that reporters start losing their skepticism and objectivity and begin lying to the American public in order to maintain their close, cozy and confidential relationships.

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