Friday, January 30, 2009

Dear elite journalists - it's not all about you

I generally think of David Cay Johnston as one of the better investigative journalists, as the establishment types go, but this piece at CJR just set my teeth grinding this morning. Johnston scolds the new White House press office for failing to respond properly to his inquiries. He tells the press office that 'us little people' get our news mainly from guys like him, the implication being that they should treat him with more deference. Actually, scold may be the wrong word. The piece comes off as vaguely threatening.

He irresponsibly publishes the phone number for the press office, twice, in the piece. Ironically, even as he complains about the technical problems there, the CJR site is apparently having technical problems of its own, having twice told me that my comment was rejected. Judging from the doubled comment posts, mine will either also appear twice or not at all. Assuming it may be the latter, I'll post my comment here.
Remembering the thousands of times that the media uncritically regurgitated White House propaganda proffered by "unnamed sources," I'm having a little trouble understanding the substance of your complaint here. This administration is coming into office at a time of extreme turmoil far beyond any administration in recent history. And it's entirely possible the outgoing admin, crashed the communications system, deliberately or inadvertently, making it more difficult to manage incoming calls.

And surely you realize that publishing the phone number for the press office is likely to generate a huge wave of calls from every nutcase with a complaint, who will pretend to be a journalist. A cynical person might think you were trying to make the transition even more difficult. Which I guess would be good for some trivial 'gotcha' piece like this. For the good of a smooth transition, not so much.

And what was this earthshaking story that you're so offended they wouldn't give their undivided attention to? Frankly, "how the Obama press secretary’s office is operating and what its tone will be" is only important to the media. Trust me on this. The average Jake on the street doesn't give a flying leap about it.
To be fair, Johnston also posted his own phone number. Maybe a few hundred people should call him today and ask him to spell his name and give his title and ask him what exactly he's investigating. That ought to do wonders for his ability to get some real work done.

Update: There's a note with the comment section that tells you it may take a few minutes for your comment to appear. It doesn't say you'll get an erroneous message telling you it was rejected. So, my comment did get published -- twice. Guess even the mighty press can suffer quirky technical issues. Perhaps Mr. Johnston can investigate that and report back with the name and job title of the person who will be repairing it along with full details on how CJR is operating and what its tone will be.

[More posts daily at The Detroit News.]

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you get the comment I wrote here? It has not appeared.

10:33:00 AM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

I got this one David. Perhaps you didn't follow the instructions for posting.

Don't get me wrong, I have mostly admired your work, but this piece was just nonsenical and irritating.

11:16:00 AM  
Blogger Capt. Fogg said...

"for one thing, most Americans still get their news via traditional sources."

What, Fox News? I suppose biased, tendentious and outrageous hyperbole is traditional, but it's not news.

The Pope doesn't return my calls either. Who does he think he is?

2:18:00 PM  
Blogger danps said...

Good post Libby. I thought of posting this twice but that would have been a little too meta (and too clever by half).

2:25:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

Fogg, Johnston has actually done some great work on tax scams of the rich. He's not a Fauz newser, which is why I was so irritated. He knows better. And I was really cranky this morning.

Dan, LOL. That would have been funny. Just thinking about it makes me laugh.

3:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am surprised at how you reacted to my piece.

Your suggestion that it was somehow threatening is absurd, unless you think we are supposed to just bow down to the powers in government and not examine their administration of our government.

The White House press office number is a public number. It is not a state secret. The more calls it gets from journalists who ask questions about how our government is administered (and the less about what kind of dog the first family is getting) the better we will be informed.

BTW, I got two calls, one from a drunk and one from someone I promised to call back when I finish this.

The White House press line is not there for the 60 or so journalists who work at there every day, it is there for reporters at a broadcast station in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and independent journalists like myself who cover Washington afar by paying attention to what the government does, not what politician say.

But lets get to the implications of your post:
Do you like having anonymous sources in news reports? (I have for decades criticized abusive use of unnamed sources written pieces on how to minimize their use.)

All I did here was treat this administration the same way I did every other one back to Nixon – establishing to whom am I speaking to, what is their title and we talk only on the record and for attribution.

But even if you want more unnamed sources, understand that the reporter must know who the source is, even if the reader, listener or viewer is not given their full identity.

Yet you seem to suggest, perhaps unintentionally, that one of the most basic rules of journalism -- know who you are talking to -- should be abandoned. Did you really mean that?

But, hey, if your idea of good journalism is for reporters to talk to people whose names you have only heard (was that Don or Dawn or Dann?) and (Smith or Smithe or Smyth) and whose title is unknown, well, all I can say is that is not the way responsible reporters act. Mistakes and typos are one thing; not even asking someone how to spell their name is not journalism.
The issue I raised was getting answers on the record and the administration of our government treating all inquiries equally, not cherry picking.

Do you want reporters to hold government accountable?

Or do you want a government that only answers the questions it wants, one that will not provide information it would rather not discuss? Do you want to know only want any administration wants you to know?

And what of an administration that promised transparency and openness to say one thing and do the opposite? Should journalists examine whether politicians hew to their promises or disregard them?

3:40:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

David, I'm certainly not suggesting that we don't hold Obama accountable for his promises but for crying out loud, it's been less than two weeks. I think it's a little early to raise a great hue and cry about his failures. As I've said repeatedly now, I think you've done some fabulous work and this piece seemed so trivial in comparison. I don't usually read something you've written and say, so what, much less WTF?

The new kids in town are overwhelmed and feeling a little shaky about what they're authorized to do. And I understand the equipment is antiquated. It's possible that's the reason the voice mail isn't working properly. I've programmed phone systems. When they glitch out, it's not always easy to figure out how to fix it and it's entirely possible they don't even have the contact info for the techs.

As for the number being public, I'm aware of that but most nutcases wouldn't be and it seems to me that publishing it on a platform as large as yours is just an invitation for crank callers to further jam the lines.

As for your threatening tone, purely subjective on my part but your complaints about being cut out of the loop and their failure to treat you with "grace and smarts" because "most people" get their news from guys like you, struck me as a bit churlish and your concerns at this early date echoes a sense of entitlement I see among your peers that IMO is destroying journalism as a craft.

And yes, it sounded vaguely threatening, as in treat me with more respect or pay the price. As I say, it's subjective but I can't help how I feel. And by the way, I'm sure you've read the latest surveys showing people are turning to other on-line sources outside of the MSM in greater numbers all the time. I think the attitude I perceived in this post, rightly or wrongly, has something to do with that.

I'm one of the biggest critics of the media's willingness to uncritically pass on any and all White House disinfo under the aegis of "unnamed sources" for the last 8 years and I'll be the first to bang the drum if and when this admin continues that practice. But considering the vast array of serious problems they're dealing with at the moment, I think we can afford to give them a couple of more weeks to get acclimated before we raise the red alert flags.

As far as I can see, Obama has done a lot to increase transparency in this short time, from his FOIA order to launching I don't see the bad faith here. I would think a journalist of your talents and connections might better spend his time complaining about the GOP's relentless obstructionism.

And by the way, that drunk caller? It wasn't me.

5:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


So this is just about your sense of timing -- do not publish, wait.

Sorry, I believe in publishing. And my piece is carefully nuanced on the point of newness.

More importantly, holding back would be showing favoritism and I don't do that for anyone, never have, just as I do not use anonymous sources except for cases where I have, say, 50 or 70 low-level government employees in widely varying places telling the same story and who can get fired for getting out the truth and who are functionaries, not high level spokespeople. Even then my clips show I often get at least one such person onto the record.

Try being consistent. If you disliked all the anonymous sourcing in the last administration than that should bother you just as much in any other administration.

You continue to miss the donut for the hole. Yes, Obama signed a change in rules on requests for information -- which was widely reported. How then to explain, as my piece pointed out, why has that attitude not infused his press staff? And what does this tell us?

Given that you indicate you are a partisan (see your last line), imagine that the last administration had spokespeople who bristled when asked to spell their names, would not give their job titles and would not take questions. Or who hung up, unheard of in my four decades plus career.

The Bushies often gave canned answers, ones that sometimes had little to do with the question asked, but even in their open disdain for an independent press they took your questions and they called you back.

Does it trouble you, this attitude that we only respond to questions we want to answer, like Sarah Palin in the debates? If not then ask yourself why and how that approach benefits us?

BTW, theWhite House spokespeople still have not gotten back to me. Now what does that suggest? Ron Nessen never went home until he had seen to it that every call, even from the editor of the weekly Tiny Town Gazette got his call returned.

6:16:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...


Partisan? Are you seriously suggesting that the GOP hasn't been relentlessly obstructing since 06? Their record breaking use of the filibuster is well established. Facts are not partisan.

And perhaps, wanting to give substantive, responsive answers to questions instead of canned answers that aren't responsive, may take a little longer than simply reading from a script? These people are not working for a president that pretends the problems don't exist, or spends the bulk of his time riding his bike and hogging brush on the ranch. Or who insists on his early bedtime. Obama is actively engaged in solving problems. He's moving almost faster than I can follow and it's not that alarming that it will take longer than two weeks to change the conventional manner of doing business.

Furthermore, as I just said at CJR, it's been widely reported that the White House equipment is antiquated. Obama brought in a younger crew who are used to the latest tech. It's not that shocking that they may be having issues dealing with equipment they've never used.

You post acknowleged their newness but made no mention of the measures taken to increase transparency. Where's the balance in that? And are you aware of the changes they made to the robots.txt file at

The Bush admin spent 8 years burying public information. They can't fix it all in two weeks. And why aren't you complaining about canned, unresponsive answers from the Bush WH? That would have balanced your post better.

I welcome serious media scrutiny, at long last, to any admin. I wish it was practiced when the GOP was in power. But so far, I'm not seeing any real signs of bad faith simply because your calls aren't immediately returned. I'm still not even clear on what earth shaking issue you're investigating. All I see is you complaining that you're not being given the proper deference for a puff piece on how the press office operates. And I'd remind you that while you may not be a big offender, the rest of the media has suddenly discovered oversight and the press office is very likely fielding an enormous number of calls over trivial issues. What we lefties like to call the Clinton rules are back in effect, so there's that as well.

I promise you, if and when Obama's admin shows signs of the same sort of obfuscation that the Bush WH practiced, I will be right there shouting about it to anyone who will listen. Premature publishing is no better than publishing too long delayed.

On a different note, I do want to apologize for the crack about you deliberately sabotaging the transistion by publishing the number. That was unnecessary and uncalled for and I don't really believe that. In the heat of the moment, it just struck me as so Michelle Malkinish, and I may have over-reacted just a bit in my morning crankiness.

7:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media (Hardcover)
by Bernard Goldberg (Author)

1:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Partisan was a reference to you as a partisan.

Go back and read the line again and note the context. It had nothing to do with partisan politics, which have become a terrible scourge that detracts from effective government, issues I have written about and lectured about hundreds of times. Indeed, how the political donor class has contributed to our woes is a major theme in my bestselling books.

My article was written at a website for journalists and those who care about journalism. It was aimed at that audience. And despite the short length you will notice it had roughly 20 sources, including several former press secretaries.

For a broad audience it would be important to note the change that affects bots trying to scrape data from the White House website (which I have not written about, but did early-on alert other reporters to). CJR is not that broad audience.

The idea that the last administration did not get scrutiny is provably false.

The facts are far more complicated than that.

Without a doubt the Bush administration and its tactics represented a major new advance in spin and in exploiting the weaknesses of Washington reportage. especially cable and TV, with their reliance on access to people. I have lectured and written about this and had many go-rounds with Bushies, none of whom ever hung up on me or refused to listen to my questions or to respond (though the responses were often superficial).

BTW, I worked from New York and my home in Rochester, spending maybe 30 or 50 days in DC between 1995 and 2008.

Many reporters have become very lax about getting officials on the record, an issue that was front page news in the NYTimes. The responses to my post suggest some people are hostile to the idea of getting officials on the record, which is astounding to me.

In my Sept. letter at Romenesko (Journalists, start your skepticism) a few days after he bailout, I cited the run up to the Iraq war lapdog problems. I hoped they would no be repeated with the bailout. I gave specific advice on how to cover it right and many journalists have sought my advice on this since.

On the other hand, did you read the stories about the secret prisons and Gitmo and torture and the lack of Humvee armor and the
tapping of domestic calls and the roundups of Muslims of Arab descent and the no-bid contracts and on and on and on.

You do know that Bill Keller was summoned to the Oval Office and threatened with prosecution? Bill and Arthur never flinched and the stories about domestic wiretapping, etc. kept running. Think about how well you would have stood up to such intimidation by the most powerful man in the world.

I'll be glad to have you read every one of my clips and judge my work, starting with my Page One story just days after the 2001 inauguration that exposed what turned out to be a stealth quarter trillion (note that "t") tax cut. The tax cut was not mentioned in the bill -- it was by knowing what was not in the fine print that I figured this out and then confirmed it with the one lawyer I knew would have seen the same thing. After a Congressional staff report (two actually) showed I was right the Bush administration withdrew this provision.

There were many more stories like this.

Also, what is this derogatory use of "elite media" stuff. Have you looked up that word? It means a group of the best. You want morons covering the news? Why has "elite" become a term of derision?

For decades I have been writing criticism of the press -- some of it for CJR. I am the only reporter in history to cause a broadcaster (2 TV stations, four radio) to lose their licenses for news manipulations and blackouts. It took some public interest lawyers who took up the issue eight years of hard work to finish the job I started and stuck with.

So I am not the problem and I have been in the forefront of critiquing others to teach in my field. I also walk my talk, volunteering four weekends each year to teach reporters how to do it, including teaching how to get officials on the record, which I did with 100% success during the GWBush years.

The issues I wrote about deal with how our government acts, with what happens after the laws are passed and how the government is administered. The piece I wrote may turn out to be noting or it may be an early window (maybe the early window) on an important issue with broad ramifications. Time will tell.

No need to apologize on the phone number. I should have pointed out that it, like the main WH number, is public.

5:39:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

David Cay Johnston said, if I am quoting him correctly, You do know that Bill Keller was summoned to the Oval Office and threatened with prosecution? Bill and Arthur never flinched and the stories about domestic wiretapping, etc. kept running. Think about how well you would have stood up to such intimidation by the most powerful man in the world.

I was under the impression that Jim Risen's story was ready to go before the first Tuesday in 2004. And yet, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Risen's story did not appear for about thirteen months, well after the reelection of Mr. Bush. Perhaps Mr. Keller had something to do with that.

Mr. Keller's empowerment of Judith Miller, whose articles did much to persuade a dubious Congress concerning the danger of Saddam's arms program, need not be recalled.

6:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was not involved in any of Jim Risen's stories and know nothing directly. But Keller (or someone on his behalf) has said that he did not think the story was ready. After Jim's book leave, when he developed more material, the story ran, ran big and ran long.

A few times I have thought an investigation was done only to have an editor say he wanted more sources, more documentation, more review and checking.

A story with a hole or a lack of heft is easy to sink -- and that can have repercussions far worse than delay. Imagine if the story had run and it was attackable and was shot down.

Still, the NYT ran the wiretapping, rendition and many other very tough and sensitive stories. Other than the Wash Post and LATimes, who else aggressively pursued these stories and did the hard work and immensely costly work of getting them into publishable shape?

I wonder if Sam Zell, who now controls the LATImes (where I worked for 12 years) would have had the courage Keller did. Oh, I forgot, Zell turned in his brother-in-law to escape indictment on a tax charge.

The world is not black and white. Newspapers are not perfect, nor are politicians or bloggers. Editors make decisions and live with them.

Do you know of any other editor called to the Oval Office and threatened with prosecution? (And that is the only one of what I am sure are a host of efforts to make sure certain stories did not run.) And, after that, how many editors would have continued to send his reporters to dig and then run their articles?

Keller is not perfect, nor are you or I, but he has demonstrated courage and resolve.

8:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ops, I forgot to note the very superb and tough coverage by Knight Ridder (where I worked at three papers for 15 years)....Before the Iraq War they did, hands down, the best job.

BTW, the K-R reporters did what I do -- insist that officials be on the record, avoid press conferences and dig into the written record.

8:05:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

If Risen's story had been published before election day, it certainly would have been attacked. There would have been a great deal of coverage.

And, as the story was and is true, more evidence would have come out, as it has now. History might have been different; we might have had Kerry. The Americans in uniform killed between January 2005 and now might be alive today. Bill Keller and Pinch Sultzberger have to live with that. And let's not forget Katrina. President Kerry might have responded better to that. He could scarcely have done worse.

Now and then papers have to take a chance, as for example both the Times and the Post did with the Pentagon Papers. Keller and Sultzberger did stand up to the White House in December, 2005, which was a brave thing to do. I am skeptical, however, that the Times needed thirteen months to nail the story down.

11:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

derbes, you may be right and you might not be. But by your standard how responsible am I for the heavy weight you place on journalists of being responsible for more deaths in Iraq.

John Kerry stopped his campaign for three days during which he read my book Perfectly Legal, which several times he was filmed going into stores and buying. Had he spent those three days campaigning instead maybe that would have won him election, so should I have held off publishing my book for a year so that Kerry would not spend three valuable campaign days with it?

Or should the journalists who did not report that (including the NYT, Wash Post, LATimes and ChiTrib) Kerry read my book be held responsible for deaths in Iraq because if millions had read about GWB's tax cheating and other conduct I exposed they might have voted differently? Or what if they had reported this and among the many additional readers ot brought to my book were people who admired GWBush for shorting the tax man (trust me, lots if people admire tax cheats) and so they switched their votes for him or showed up instead of staying home on election day?

(A much fuller version of how Bush made is fortune off a tax increase he arranged to have funneled into his pocket and how he then cheated on his taxes is in Free Lunch).

See how wild and far out speculation can get?

Stories that hit just before an election often have the opposite consequence than what you imagine.

Consider the carefully reported, fully on-the-record expose by the LATimes )(where I worked for 12 years) of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s crudely harassing women. All of them were named and none of whom sought out the paper, but instead had to be found and persuaded to talk. Many people wrongly believe the story was based on anonymous sources, that the women were seeking to get rich off lawsuits and some people, causing the paper to lose 1 percent of its circulation. Some voters said they voted for Schwarzenegger to show their disgust with what they thought was shoddy journalism because they believed what was falsely said about the show by a host of commentators.
Facts are what they are. Editors make decisions. In every tough call that I was involved with at the NYT I found the editors had solid backbone, a deep respect for fact and that they set high standards, something I cannot say for every editor I have worked for since 1966 because more than a few lacked spines.

1:12:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

Derbes, thanks for the weighing in to keep the thread alive while I was occupied. I agree with your points.

2:26:00 PM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...


I'm aware you were calling me a partisan. Not sure why suggesting a valid story that is well documented and underreported makes me one. Not that I deny I'm an unapologetic liberal but I don't see what that has to do with my suggestion.

As for your contention that the lack of scrutiny on the last administration is provably false, prove it. And trotting out the stories that were published years after 9/11, well after Bush's approval ratings started to tank is not a defense. If not for the uncritical dissemination of WH talking points in the aftermath of 9/11, none of those stories would have had to be written because those events would not have occurred. The elite media, or professional journalists if you prefer a different phrase, failed in criticially examing the justifications for going into Iraq, or even Afghanistan, which I still think to this day was a mistake. And as Derbes has already pointed out, Judy Miller was the poster girl for the media's failure and set the gold standard for WH water carrying.

As to the responses to your CJR post, I didn't see any huge hostility towards getting officials on the record but I did see a lot of Bush apologists taking it as a validation of the misguided view that the media is "in the tank" for Obama. A laughable suggestion when one looks back on the fixation over bowling scores, Rev. Wright, Ayers and Obama's choice of breakfast foods just to name a very few of the many examples.

As for publishers being threatened, wasn't Katharine Graham harassed and threatened by the Nixon WH for the Watergate investigation? If memory serves, she showed more courage than Keller and basically told them to take a flying leap. I'd be more impressed by Keller if he had run the story, instead of holding it until it was too late to make a difference. Derbes is right. Had he run it sooner, it might have changed the course of history.

Keller may claim some higher motives, but I see fear in that decision and have to ask why the hell the White House is dictating when a piece should be published at all? It goes against every tenet of a free press. And you can't have it both ways. You justify publishing your vague concerns about a possible problem with the current WH press office, that hasn't been established by any clear pattern yet, by telling me you believe in publishing immediately so as not to appear to be showing favoritism. Yet you defend Keller waiting 13 months for wanting to be certain the story is accurate. A little consistency would help here.

Again, I think the body of your work is admirable and I don't think you're a villian in the story of the media's failures of the last 8 years. I'd also concede that there were a handful of journalists who were doing it right. I'd also add McClatchy to that list. But they didn't have the megaphone. The water carriers did and Drudge rules their world, to all our detriment.

Sorry, but your CJR piece just didn't live up to the standard your previous work set. It smacks of the double standard that always occurs when Democrats are in office and you came off like a disgruntled prima donna who was in a nit-picking snit over a perceived slight to your importance as a member of the elite media. Which again, reflects the current attitude of entitlement among too many of your peers that is destroying the credibility of the press in general among informed citizens.

And by the way, the term "elite media" is not necessarily meant as a pejorative. Its just blogger shorthand for professional press corps, which is too long for a blog title. It's interchangeable with legacy media, establishment media, or any term that would indicate the paid press. As I'm sure you realize, the meaning of words can morph over time. For instance, the word gay that was commonly understood to mean merry is almost never used in that context anymore.

2:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Libby/ David. Have you ever given thought to writing a book together? A journalist debates. Might make for a terrific read considering the volley of insights at play here.

12:16:00 AM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

Gautam, I should be so lucky that David ever acknowledges my existence again.

11:43:00 AM  

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