August 30, 2012 · 0 Comments
Above: Reporter Mark Mazzetti shared a draft article with the CIA by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd ‘without her knowledge’, said the Times’ statement. Photograph: Amy Sussman/Getty Images
By Dan Gillmor:
After earlier blithe assurances, the Times has called its reporter’s action ‘a mistake’. But is it symptomatic of a culture of coziness?
In his last column as the New York Times’ public editor, or ombudsman, Arthur Brisbane admonished the newspaper for what he called an unstated “progressivism” that bled through the journalism on a semi-regular basis. He was right in one sense: the Times does, from my perspective, view the world through a lens that affects its journalism, and the paper doesn’t forthrightly say so.
But that worldview is more nuanced than Brisbane’s label. The Times is, without doubt, progressive on social issues, not just on its editorial pages but also in the news pages. It is less so in other arenas. Despite some reporting that has infuriated the powers-that-be from time to time, the paper’s evidently close ties to the New York and Washington power elites have given it a justified reputation for coziness with authority. What bleeds through when I read the Times – with important exceptions that keep the Times at the top of my must-read list despite its failings – is a deep kinship with the people who pull the key levers in our government and economy. As one former Times journalist once told me, the paper is the “trade journal for the rich and powerful”.
So, call me less than shocked at the discovery, reported Tuesday by Politico, that a Times reporter, Mark Mazzetti, gave the CIA an advance peek at an upcoming column by op-ed commentator Maureen Dowd. The Times has repeatedly allowed the Obama administration’s national security operatives to vet upcoming journalism – the paper took public pride in the way it redacted WikiLeaks material at officials’ behest – and it notoriously held a huge story (pervasive and illegal spying on Americans by the Bush administration) for a year. Still, it’s hard to fathom why he or his editors would share a column by Dowd, whose commentary these days rarely contains any facts that haven’t been previously reported.)
The response of the Times’ managing editor, Dean Baquet, was approximately this: “Nothing to see here. Move along.” Actually, it was worse. As Politico’s reported (I’ve corrected a minor spelling error):
“‘I know the circumstances, and if you knew everything that’s going on, you’d know it’s much ado about nothing,’ Baquet said. ‘I can’t go into in detail. But I’m confident after talking to Mark that it’s much ado about nothing.’
“‘The optics aren’t what they look like,’ he went on. ‘I’ve talked to Mark, I know the circumstance, and given what I know, it’s much ado about nothing.’”
“Last August, Maureen Dowd asked Mark Mazzetti to help check a fact for her column. In the course of doing so, he sent the entire column to a CIA spokeswoman shortly before her deadline. He did this without the knowledge of Ms Dowd. This action was a mistake that is not consistent with New York Times standards.”
That response has generated the derision it deserves. It’s my fervent hope that the Times’ incoming public editor starts her tenure by asking some extremely pointed questions. Given the Times’ demands for transparency from others, its stonewalling on Mazzetti’s dealings with the CIA transcends irony; it’s downright hypocritical, and Baquet’s blithe assurances were not credible.
The Times isn’t the only major organization with deep establishment ties to have allowed a subject of its coverage to vet that coverage before readers saw it. Media watchers were surprised to learn recently that theWashington Post had given the University of Texas an advance look at a story draft by a higher education reporter.
The Post and Times, meanwhile, are among many journalistic organizations to have allowed Obama administration and Romney campaign officials to vet quotes before publication. Baquet told his paper (kudos to the Times for actually running the story) that he didn’t like the practice and that “maybe we have to push back a little harder.” You think?
Journalists’ dealings with sources prior to publication or broadcast are not binary, yes/no relationships. There’s always some give-and-take, and sometimes, it raises ethical issues: for example, you will rarely, if ever, see a story in which a journalist treats his primary (often confidential) source as skeptically or harshly as others named in the piece.
But handing a finished piece over? That is over the top.
I don’t know how much of this goes on in traditional media organizations. I do know that in my own years in the business, I wasn’t party to any such practice. When I was a business and technology columnist in Silicon Valley, a decade-long stint that ended in 2005, I’d occasionally read a paragraph or two – typically, my translations of technical concepts into plain English – to someone I’d interviewed, to ensure that I was getting the details right. But sending a story or column in full? No way.
For all that, I fully understand sources’ wishes to see what’s going to be said about them. Anyone who’s ever been covered in a news story knows that errors creep in to even the best journalists’ reports. Outright bad faith by reporters is exceedingly rare, in my experience, but absolute fidelity to what I know, as opposed to what is reported, is equally unusual.
The best reason not to share reporting ahead of time is the most obvious. It makes your source a colleague or, at the very least, gives that appearance. If that’s the intention, put another byline on the piece. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when outsiders accuse you of compromising coziness with the people who, by tradition and the genuine national interest, should remain at arms’ length.