Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Media As Watchdog ... Or Lapdog?

Gawker scores with an in depth investigation into how the media covered the Spitzer mess last year and has been combing through more than 1,000 pages of emails between Spitzer's press secretary Christine Anderson, communications director Errol Cockfield, and journalists covering the expanding scandal. The results aren't pretty:
The e-mails total 1,300 pages, and we're still reading through the stack of paper. Any other interesting finds will be going up in subsequent posts. But what we've seen so far has been surprising: You'd think that, with blood in the water, the traditional coziness that develops between official flacks and the beat reporters who have to talk to them every day would break down into some kind of last-man-standing slugfest. But in the Spitzer case, the opposite happened. The revelations upended the worlds of both reporter and flack alike, and the uncertainty, long hours, and breakneck pace of the scandal actually seemed to throw them together as they worked toward what seems, if you read the e-mail exchanges, like a common goal of getting the news out and behind them.

Which makes sense on a human level. But sometimes good reporting—especially of the government watchdog variety—requires an inhuman suspension of compassion. The infractions documented in these e-mails are misdemeanors, but—in addition to being an unvarnished peek inside the media machinery—they're indicative of the creeping social and professional alliances that inevitably develop between PR handlers and their overworked, easily manipulated charges in the press corps. And they give the lie to the myth of the vigilant watchdog press that keeps the government on its toes. Next time you hear New York Times editor Bill Keller claim that newspapers are uniquely situated to do the "hard, expensive, sometimes dangerous work [of] quality journalism," remember that his reporter broke the story of Spitzer's dalliances with prostitutes. But also remember the time his reporter e-mailed Gov. Paterson's flack to request permission to call Paterson's former mistress.

This first installment documents the shocking amount of control that Keller's Times allowed Anderson, a former Good Morning America producer and PR veteran of the Clinton White House, to exercise over his paper's coverage. After bringing Anderson's world down around her head by breaking the story, Times reporters previewed portions of their stories with her before publication, asked for her permission before contacting sources, and let her tell them how to characterize its reporting in the paper.
The next time you hear someone say that the media is a watchdog, remember this.

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