The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

Have you noticed any trends in Beltway journalism toward the relationships between reporters and sources becoming more transactional, or at least more clubby?
There’s a lot of transactional stuff going on. There’s an expectation oftentimes that things start off off-the-record or on background. The default presumption has, I believe, moved increasingly toward a lack of accountability. I think that there’s a notion that everybody’s sort of in a club where they start off speaking freely, and then they decide whether they really will allow any of that to be used. It’s tough to counter as one individual. A presumption is a tough thing to fight.

So people start out saying, “Why don’t we just talk?” My approach to that varies. If the person I’m calling needs to be held accountable, I generally say, “No, on the record.” If I’m just calling for perspective or guidance on something, it doesn’t matter as much. It bothers me most, quite frankly, when it’s the television networks. More so than the newspapers, more so than radio stations, more so than any other segment of the media, [networks] are tremendously allergic to on-the-record accountability. They always try to default to off the record, or background, or guidance. They are tremendously image-conscious.

I think what the New York Times has done with respect to cracking down on anonymous sources has been pretty interesting. If you make an institutional commitment that you’re not going to quote people anonymously, then these interactions become much cleaner, because the people know that either you’re on the record, or you get off the phone. And that’s very important. I’ve been spun a lot, off the record.

Do any recent cases with the TV networks stand out — where they’ve tried to spin you?
It’s funny: The Daily Caller the other day just did a story by Evan Gahr, the sort of self-avowed gadfly. Maybe a year ago or so, someone broke a story about how [some] MSNBC hosts were in tax delinquency. And another media reporter said, “They are believed to be paying these — resolving their tax-delinquency problems.” That was unsourced. As this guy from the Daily Caller says, it was clearly spoon-fed by the PR people. And I wrote, on the same story, something to the effect that MSNBC won’t comment on what happened here. It’s a perfect example of why you shouldn’t let spokespeople do that. I guess in this particular instance I look okay, but I am not going to say that I have never fallen victim to this problem. I would never, ever say that, because I’m pretty sure if you look back, you could find instances where I have taken that.

But the Daily Caller guy has basically shown that it’s been a year, or whatever it’s been, and they haven’t paid much back. They remain deeply in the hole with the IRS. I think the important lesson there is: There’s a reason why they’re not on the record. Sometimes it’s totally legit. But when it’s a spokesperson, who’s paid to defend people, and they refuse to do it on the record, there’s a reason there.

You mean because they want to say things that can’t be verified?
Look, they have careers, and if their name is attached to stuff that turns out to be bogus — well, that’s a problem.

They want to put out this message without actually standing behind it, without attaching their name to it.
And that’s a problem. That happens quite frequently. It just seems a little hypocritical that these organizations that make a big deal about how they’re such strong journalistic, ethical organizations, when they’re under fire, they just issue statements. They rarely allow interviews with their people. And it’s a really carefully lawyered sort of thing. Instead of, say, putting an executive on the phone and saying, “Have at this guy.”

How about embargoing information in such a way that it isn’t just a matter of when you can release it, but it’s a matter of how you can report on it?
Oh, so you’re talking about the situation where they, like, give you an interview with someone and say you can’t have other voices in the story?

I go berserk over that. Berserk.

If they keep trying, it must be because it works with some people.
I think it has to work with some people. I won’t do that. I will not, not, not do that. That’s awful.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

Erik Wemple on the Media