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All the President’s Chums

It seems odd, after the media revolutions of the past several decades, to behold one of the worst conventions of the old press order soldiering blithely on: the private, off-the-record presidential briefing. In a curiously noncommittal dispatch for the New York Times, D.C. scribe Michael D. Shear notes that the Obama administration has convened more than a dozen such clubby confabs since 2009. The ground rules are simple: columnists, pundits, and opinion-makers are summoned to kick around a topic du jour—the damnably slow economic recovery, the stalled-out effort to contain ISIS, this or that pending trade accord, etc., and in exchange for the exclusive audience with the American head of state, they agree to quote nothing on the record, and indeed to behave as if the meeting never happened at all. Cue the predictable flurry of columns smugly conversant in what the president “appears to recognize,” “clearly feels,” or—should the pundit in question be feeling especially coy about covering his tracks—what a shadowy “many in the White House . . . believe.” 

Now, no one denies that a face-to-face with a sitting president is immensely pleasing to one’s journalistic vanity. (Though it does call to mind the old saw about the pleasures of op-ed journalism being akin to pissing yourself in a blue serge suit: it feels nice when you’re doing it, but when you’re finished, no one notices.) But journalism is a public trust, if one is to credit the sort of rhetoric its leading lights like to throw around in awards ceremonies, anthology introductions, and scholarship applications. So it seems reasonable to ask just what sort of public interest is served when our leadership class conducts ex cathedra bull sessions with a handpicked coterie of writers so as to ensure the wide and friendly circulation of a few pet talking points.

The Oval Office’s underlings, of course, offer up a smartly self-justifying rationale for the ceremony. President Obama can ruminate more freely, and indulge in more adventurous modes of discursive give-and-take than in the stilted confines of a press conference or a post-speech Q & A. The confabs are “a way for people to set aside the urgency of supplying the latest quote from the president of the United States and sit back and listen to the broader argument,” says lead White House press flack Josh Earnest. Never mind that these sessions, as Shear goes on to note, almost never include any news reporters—i.e., the kind of writer who’s compelled to run down the chief executive’s “latest quote.” No, these are the lords of our punditocracy—those omniscient yet infinitely patient souls who lovingly chronicle “the broader argument,” while offering their own accumulated Beltway-branded wisdom on how it might be better conducted. That these are the writers Obama enlists as a sympathetic audience speaks volumes about the real aim here: not to let the broader argument run its own devil-may-care course, but to shape it in terms singularly favorable to the Oval Office.

Clubby access journalism has a long and colorful history in our centers of power—and any cursory look back shows just how ruinous it’s been.

What’s more, the White House defenders of the practice can’t even offer up an internally consistent explanation. Out of one side of her mouth, former Obama communications director Anita Dunn echoes Earnest’s lazy reasoning for why these cozy meet-ups must always be off the record: “Once it’s attributed, it becomes an official policy. You can’t really think out loud at that point.” Then, out of the other, she contends that these sessions produce a more rounded sense of Obama’s policy sagesse: “They walk away from them with a better sense of him as a person and a policy maker.”

Got that? Obama can’t be held to his utterances as he holds journalistic court because that would turn his off-the-cuff speculations into policy pronouncements—yet these selfsame gatherings disclose elusive truths about how Obama makes policy. Try transposing these basic terms of analysis to any other sphere of life: You don’t need to read my novel to know that I am the second coming of Melville; We will never speak of the traumas of your childhood, but at the end of several years of psychotherapy, you will be miraculously cured! (Dunn now plies her trade as flack-for-hire at SKDKnickerbocker, a “progressive” messaging shop dedicated to such worthy policy aims as shilling for the multi-billion-dollar shakedown operation known as “for-profit education.”)

But spinners will spin. The genuinely troubling question in these behind-the-scenes briefings is just what impels the members of the Fourth Estate to acquiesce to them. Since they have already agreed to a White House-mandated omerta, none of the eager sounding-boards-by-another-name who have rallied to Obama’s after-hours casting calls can proffer a good reason to take part in them or to abide by their idiotic ground rules. However, clubby access journalism has a long and colorful history in our centers of power—and any cursory look back shows just how ruinous it’s been.

The recent history of Shear’s employer—our republic’s fabled “paper of record”—supplies ample chapter and verse on the subject. Until her unceremonious departure in 2005, the Times’s lead Middle East correspondent Judith Miller cultivated access to power with a sort of religious fervency (even to the point of becoming romantically involved with a congressman). It’s no exaggeration to say that her now-notorious, and bottomlessly credulous, reporting on Saddam Hussein’s mythical arsenal of weapons of mass destruction was critical in the Bush administration’s rush to invade Iraq in 2003—just as it’s a matter of record that her principal source in that reporting was Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, a self-interested fabulist on the question of Iraq’s WMD capabilities who worked in close concert with the Cheney-Bush White House. When Miller was later implicated in the shady journalistic deal-making that resulted in the outing of former CIA operative Valerie Plame—whose husband Joe Wilson, a career diplomat, had publicly disputed the Bush White House’s WMD narrative—it was but the grace note to a long career of lip-synching the arguments of her favorite sources.

Going further back in Times lore, the paper was so blindly in cahoots with the Cold War liberalism of the Kennedy White House that its editor, Turner Catledge, stepped cautiously in 1961 around news of the pending Bay of Pigs invasion, omitting references to the CIA’s role until the operation had run its course.[*] It turned out that the U.S. invasion failed all on its own—and if anything, an early report of the planned Cuba putsch might have prompted Kennedy’s best and brightest to either reconsider or shelve the whole fiasco-in-the-making. But the important thing to mark here is that the precedent was set for American presidents to freely avail themselves of a compliant media when pressing urgent (to them) state business. That would be why, just a few years later, there was a decorous media conspiracy of silence surrounding the Johnson administration’s bogus account of a non-existent North Vietnamese “second attack” on the U.S. Navy destroyer Maddox—the mythical 1964 Gulf of Tonkin show of communist aggression that furnished the official rationale to ratchet up the Vietnam War. And that would also be why, forty years later, the New York Times under Bill Keller could safely be counted on to exercise prior restraint entirely under its own steam, when national security reporter James Risen was told to sit on explosive revelations of illegal NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens lest they unduly influence the outcome of the imminent 2004 presidential election—er, I mean jeopardize the safety of the Homeland.

So much, in other words, for telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may. That’s not how access journalism works. In fact, many of the biggest investigative coups of the past generation were broken far afield from the elbow-bending haunts of the D.C. power elite. The Iran-Contra scandal came to light in 1986 courtesy of the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa; news of the S & L corruptions in the 1980s was first broken by reporters at the tiny Northern California paper Russian River News and the trade journal National Mortgage News; the CIA-crack connection was famously reported by the San Jose Mercury-News (in a story that the establishment press rushed to discredit, in deference to its pet CIA sources, and that the Merc itself later disclaimed, under force of thuggish peer pressure). Meanwhile, even in the more impressionistic world of opinion journalism, by far the greatest contributors have been out-of-the-loop, principled critics, rather than on-the-make backscratchers. For decades, mainstream papers parroted White House lies and power plays—while widely derided cranks such as I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky patiently assembled an unassailable counternarrative of imperial American excess.

Stone and Chomsky possessed almost no inside sources of their own; instead, they adopted what for many Washington hacks was an unthinkable-to-blasphemous methodology, contrasting the D.C.-sanctioned accounts of history with foreign reportage. Note again that the quickest and surest path to the truth was to point oneself away from the capital city’s vast messaging apparatus—except to note how the particular shapers of that messaging have stood to benefit from its uncritical adoption, far and wide.

None of this is to suggest that Ezra Klein, Michael Tomasky, and the other fellow-traveling souls who’ve sat down for chinwags with our commander in chief are enablers of the American Imperium, on the scale of a Turner Catledge or a Judy Miller. It is, however, to note that the moment you’re summoned to a Delphic sit-down with the oracles of power, you’re telling a very different story from the one that you owe to your readers. 


[*] Correction: This article has been revised to correct the original statement that Turner Catledge “acceded to JFK’s request in 1961 that the paper sit on news of the pending Bay of Pigs invasion until the operation had run its course.” The New York Times did print news of the pending invasion on its front page, though it chose not to report the information that the invasion was imminent. According to W. Joseph Campbell’s 2010 book Getting It Wrong, there is “no evidence” that John F. Kennedy pressured the paper in advance.