The Week’s Marc Ambinder on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

Marc Ambinder.

You were burned by Gawker for making some concessions to Hillary Clinton’s spokesman in order to get an advance copy of a speech. Could you explain what happened?
You can’t appreciate an exchange like this unless you’re privy to the whole thing. He and I had had some phone conversations where we were talking about the speech and I was trying to get the text in advance. I had said, “It sounds pretty muscular.” He liked that adjective and said, “You’ve gotta use that.” I said, “Well, we’ll see.” Then there was the email follow-up, which was duly documented by the Freedom of Information Act. It makes it seem as if I’m following his commands to call it muscular in exchange for the speech text.

When the story came out, it being Gawker, and Gawker being Gawker, and understanding how these stories are digested in the media ecosystem, I had a couple of choices. I could be completely oppositional and just say that Gawker’s stupid and that the story was nothing. The problem? It doesn’t work. Because the story makes it look like a journalist is sucking up to the Clintons. And when you read the email exchange, even though I knew the truth of it, it’s hard not to read it and sort of cringe. As any journalist who has ever interacted with a source knows, when you’re in that type of mode, you’re just interacting with someone who has something to give you. You have to adopt a personality that is sort of obsequious. And that perception fuels people’s mistrust of what the media is and what the media does, and not without reason. It’s very hard for me to look at that and not understand how people can look at those types of conversations and say, “This is why the media sucks in this country.” So even though what was there was a fragment of one of several conversations, I felt that responding wouldn’t have served anyone’s interest, and so I talked with several reporters afterward, explaining what had happened. But at that time, it would have…

It would have made things worse?
Well, it speaks to a couple of things. One is that Gawker has a very distinctive brand of journalism. The second is that perception matters more than basic reality. And here the perception suggested a reality that was untrue in the particular — because frankly, if I was going to engage in that sort of transaction with him, I would have exacted a far greater price than just a fucking speech. But the broader reality is true, which is that a journalist in that position will be tempted to answer like that and to make shortcuts. And that happens, and Gawker has reported it with other journalists before. One of the reasons that I moved away from that sort of journalism is because those speeches are so ephemeral, and it doesn’t matter, and I don’t want to put myself in a position where I have to defend something that, even though it might be defensible, is very hard to defend to the outside world, given how the media works.

But you did see that kind of thing happening quite a bit when you were in that world?
People saying, “I won’t give you a speech unless you write it a certain way”? That I don’t see happening. But people kind of bargaining for a speech early? And being flirtatious, in a journalistic way, with sources to get early speeches? And to get a heads-up on things? That does happen.

Okay, so maybe agreeing to write it a certain way isn’t common, but what are some ways that reporters do bargain in the Beltway reporting culture?
I would ask those journalists who do. But just generally, you get into this mode where you’re tempted, particularly if you’re a younger journalist, to approach the line and make the type of bargains that really would be, in the context of journalism, deviant. It’s not necessarily a place you want to go. Even the worst-case scenario, where somebody says, “Cover this,” or, “I will give you this so long as you include all the excerpts of it” — meaning somebody actually puts a condition on something — it happens. Anybody who says it’s not a regular practice in Washington is lying to you. You can look at my own example (which is not really an example but looks like an example) as an example of that if you want.

How do you navigate the question of what would be going too far, what would be bargaining away too much?
Number one, you stay away from that type of reporting.

What do you mean by “that type”?
Meaning, it just doesn’t matter if you get a copy of the speech early. It doesn’t matter. Just as in life, you don’t put yourself in a position that might cause you to approach the line. I think the bright-line distinction is, nobody ever has a veto over what you write, except for you and your editor. That’s where the line is, and it always is the line. But to damn all sorts of transactional reporting, to paint all reporting with that particular brush, is absurd. What I’m saying is not some big secret.

One way to get a source to talk more is to show them a near-final product that in their mind doesn’t include everything that they want to include. That means they’ll open their mouth and tell you more stuff. And so if [New York’s editor-in-chief] Adam Moss thinks that his writers are not sending to their sources either paragraphs with characterizations of things, or even partial drafts of their pieces before they’re written, he’s deluding himself.

We maintain these sort of popular fictions about how journalism works, and then there’s the reality of how journalism works. And the reality is, often a story is made better by showing sources parts of the story before it goes to publication and saying, “Is this right?” The source might say, “No, that’s not right,” and then you would say, “Okay, what’s not right here?” And the source will talk more, and give another fact, or two facts. It’s up to you to include that in the story or not. It’s amazing to me that what I’ve just said to you is remotely controversial. I don’t know if you find it controversial. But the practice is ubiquitous among really good journalists. It is akin to the Intercept showing the National Security Agency documents that they’re going to publish and asking for their comment in context … It’s the exact same fucking thing.

You think showing a leaked document that you’re going to publish is the same as showing them a partial draft of your own work?
So you’ve never shown a source a paragraph you’ve already written?

Never? I think you should do it. Many editors don’t think you should do it. In fact, editors who don’t think you should will then turn around and have their fact-checkers do it anyway. Again, there are these cozy fictions that we cling to in journalism that belie how journalism actually works. And I think it’s a detriment to young journalists and the public to not explain this stuff. And you’re not supposed to explain this stuff either, because journalism, like every other profession, is a fraternity. We like to pretend that every story we write is akin to the movie version of All the President’s Men.

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

Marc Ambinder on the Media