The Politico Opens the Kimono. And then Pretends it Never Happened.

"Think about what the Politico is saying: an experienced beat reporter would probably not want to 'burn bridges' with key sources by telling the world what happens when those sources let their guard down."

24 Jun 2010 1:48 am Comments Off on The Politico Opens the Kimono. And then Pretends it Never Happened.

As everyone who pays attention to the news knows by now, an article appeared in Rolling Stone this week by freelance reporter Michael Hastings that wound up forcing the resignation of General Stanley A. McChrystal as commander of American troops in Afghanistan. Invited to hang out with McChrystal and his staff, Hastings was witness to their contempt for the civilian side of the war effort, which he then reported on. It was a shock to everyone in Washington that McChrystal would make such a blunder, and the press began immediately to dissect it.

The Politico was so hopped up about the story that it took the extraordinary step of posting on its site a PDF of Rolling Stone’s article because Rolling Stone had not put it online fast enough. In one of the many articles The Politico ran about the episode the following observation was made by reporters Gordon Lubold and Carol E. Lee:

McChrystal, an expert on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, has long been thought to be uniquely qualified to lead in Afghanistan. But he is not known for being media savvy. Hastings, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two years, according to the magazine, is not well-known within the Defense Department. And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.

Now this seemed to several observers—and I was one—a reveal. Think about what the Politico is saying: an experienced beat reporter is less of a risk for a powerful figure like McChrystal because an experienced beat reporter would probably not want to “burn bridges” with key sources by telling the world what happens when those sources let their guard down.

Let me enumerate why this is worth noting:

1.) It’s an admission that preserving their own future access is a hidden factor in what institutionally-bound reporters are willing to tell us today.

2.) Carol Lee covers the White House for the Politico. She is a beat reporter, so she would know, right? She’s not going to let an observation that rings false to her ear go out under her by-line… is she? Doesn’t make sense.

3.) This is exactly the sort of observation in which the Politico trades: the “inside” fact you might not know that tells you how Washington really works. It’s part of the brand.

4.) The Politico was actually founded to reveal just this sort of fact. The idea from the beginning was to open the kimono on journalism itself. This is from the days (2006) when it was first announced that John Harris and Jim VandeHei would be leaving the Washington Post to start a new online publication.

Mr. VandeHei, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, said he hoped that the venture would knock down some of traditional journalism’s “state secrets,” such as how stories get leaked and whose motives are served by certain political stories.

Right. And that’s exactly what Gordon Lubold and Carol E. Lee did. They revealed one of political journalism’s state secrets: beat reporters have a motive to preserve key relationships, so they often don’t tell us everything they could, which makes them more reliable, more predictable, in the eyes of the powerful people they cover. They were being good Politico people by asking: how could McChrystal and his staff be so unsavvy?

And Andew Sullivan picked up on it. “Why, one wonders, have we not heard a peep of this from all the official MSM Pentagon reporters and analysts with their deep sources and long experience? Politico explains…” Then he cut to the passage from reporters Lubold and Lee that I began with.

Meanwhile, Thomas Ricks, formerly a beat reporter covering the military for the Washington Post, made a similar observation at his blog for Foreign Policy magazine:

Reporters doing one-off profiles for magazines such as Rolling Stone and Esquire have less invested in a continuing relationship than do beat reporters covering the war for newspapers and newsmagazines. That doesn’t mean you should avoid one-off reporters, but it does mean that they have no incentive to establish and maintain a relationship of trust over weeks and months of articles.

Our reveal is looking pretty good, isn’t it? Gordon Lubold and Carol E. Lee have no motive to make it up. Lee is a beat reporter herself, qualified to speak on the subject. Lubold has covered the military for years. Politico trades in this kind of observation; it was founded to reveal some of journalism’s “state secrets.” Tom Ricks, a former beat reporter for the Washington Post who also covered the military, says pretty much the same thing: beat reporters have an investment in continuing the relationship so they are less risky for a powerful figure like McChrystal. (Jamie McIntyre, former Pentagon reporter for CNN, says the same thing.)

And then, the next day… the reveal disappears. The Politico erased it, as if the thing had never happened. Down the memory hole, like in Orwell’s 1984. The story as you encounter it online today doesn’t have that part (“would not risk burning bridges…”) in it. Clint Hendler of Columbia Journalism Review, who discovered the missing lines, asked The Politico about it…

Managing editor Bill Nichols declined to discuss the deletion with me or to send on a version of the article as it was originally published—making it quite difficult to tell how extensively the article was revised or updated beyond this excision.“[W]e don’t get into why we make editing decisions, Nichols wrote in a brief email.

The current version notes that it was updated at 8:35 this morning, but there’s no note to inform readers how or why the article was changed.

The paragraph was widely touted as a perhaps unintentionally revealing diagnosis of the dangers of Washington reporters becoming captive to the institutions on their beat.

Now there is a debate about whether the reveal is accurate. Jack Shafer, Press Box columnist for Slate, says it is not:

According to this theory, freelancers happily burn their subjects because they’re not likely to return to them, whereas beat reporters must rely on maintaining good day-to-day relations with them. I don’t buy this. Feature writers and beat reporters are equally capable of taking a dive for their subjects. I don’t know of any beat reporter who wouldn’t have gotten a promotion for catching McChrystal and his staff shooting off their mouths, and I don’t know any newspaper that would have hesitated to publish the story.

I don’t think Shafer quite grasps the suggestion here. The suggestion is that a beat reporter would know when he’s being trusted not to reveal back stage behavior. It would never get to the point of “should I publish this damaging but spectacular story or hold it back to preserve my access…?” because the reporter would mentally label what he saw as unusable material. It wouldn’t be a question of “catching” the General and his staff because he would have internalized the difference between “on” time and down time, and this might even be part of his sophistication.

Joe Calderone, formerly a reporter for Newsday and the New York Daily News and someone I know because he teaches at NYU, said on Twitter than anyone who thinks beat reporters are just as likely to write damaging articles about key sources they will need later “never worked as a beat reporter I guess.”

What grounds could the Politico possibly have for redacting its own reporters’ work, and then refusing to talk to the profession’s leading journalism review about it? I can only speculate because the editors refuse to explain. But my guess would be that other beat reporters complained to the bosses and said…this makes us look bad! And the bosses, instead of standing up for their creed—revealing journalism state’s secrets—decided to cave and go Orwell on us. “That never happened” is the new story they offer readers. Along with “no more questions.”

They revealed too much, and quickly covered it up. That’s what I think. Now if John Harris, top editor of The Politico, wants to recover his senses and explain what was wrong with the original passage, I may change my mind. And while he’s at it, he can explain why he posted on his site the PDF of an article Rolling Stone was about to publish, in a brazen attempt to “win the morning” with someone else’s work. Until then I am flunking The Politico on this month’s legitimacy exam.

UPDATE: Yesterday, the Politico said it doesn’t explain its editing decisions, so why are you asking? Today, I got this explanation from The Politico’s Tim Grieve:

Hey, Jay – I read your post on our McChrystal piece and wanted to circle back —

Having done my share of media criticism at Salon, I know how satisfying it is to score a gotcha on the press. But I can tell you that there’s no “there” there on this one.

As we often do on big, breaking stories, we wrote through and reposted our main McChrystal piece many times Tuesday and Wednesday – adding new facts and shedding less relevant ones along the way. At around 5:45 Tuesday evening, I re-worked the piece to add new comments from President Obama and otherwise reflect the latest news. Together with the other adds that had come in during the day, my inserts made the story very long and unwieldy, so I quickly deleted or substantially reworked more than a dozen paragraphs that struck me as either tangential or out-of-date.

The “offending” paragraph about beat reporters vs. freelancers was one of them. No one – no source, no reporter, no editor above or below me – had said a word to me about the paragraph. I removed it solely for the purposes of keeping the story tight and readable. And in fact, I thought so little about doing it that I didn’t even remember taking it out when we first got an inquiry from CJR Wednesday.

I love a good conspiracy as much as the next guy, but this ain’t one.

Tim Grieve
Deputy Managing Editor

And Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart comments on the same issues I tackle in this post, but… better!

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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