I whipped out my battered notebook at the 1980 Democratic convention and fed a bunch of quotes from obscure delegates to the Washington Star's legendary columnist, Jack Germond.
"Thanks, kid," he said in that impossibly gruff voice. "I've already got the names. I needed some non-names."
Germond, who died last week at 85, was a throwback in more ways than one: a poker-playing, racetrack-dwelling, Falstaffian figure who would close down the bar at New Hampshire's Wayfarer Inn, then be up at 7 the next morning interviewing county chairmen. While disdaining the younger generation for avoiding whiskey, eating salads and hitting the treadmill, he also marveled at how most lacked the political sources that he so assiduously cultivated. "You see these columnists from Washington who show up for one day, standing around looking sage, as if they're able to see things everyone else can't see," Germond once told me. "That is crap."
Too much of what passes for political journalism these days is actually political bloviation-the handicapping, speculating, poll-regurgitating, rumor-mongering, finger-pointing schtick that requires little research. Not that Germond didn't indulge in such vices on TV, especially in his role as a liberal panelist on the McLaughlin Group. "I'm not comfortable with any of this, but I do it for the money," he told me before quitting the show in 1996. But Jack had done the scut work to back up his pronouncements.
The web and the cable culture puts a premium on branding, which turns on personality, combativeness and making enough noise to rise above the din. Good reporting is based on a different set of values-scrupulousness, fairness, plowing through documents, winning the trust of people on the inside. The resulting stories don't always "pop," but they enlighten and illuminate and sometimes force scandalous matters into the daylight.
Take Hillary. More than three years before the next presidential election, she is the subject of endless media chatter about her prospects in 2016, the impact of Huma Abedin's husband and on and on. But not until this New York Times piece last week did I read a vigorously reported story on conflicts within the Clinton Foundation, the role of former White House aides in the international venture and whether it will become a vehicle for the former first lady's effort to move back into her old home.
The thing about good reporting-whether it's on the White House, the statehouse, the town council or the business world-is that it is time-consuming and expensive. (Take note, Jeff Bezos.) Tantalizing leads wind up as dry holes. Backup sources have to be developed. Sensitive stories must be lawyered. So much easier to pop off on the latest poll.
Germond didn't tweet. He didn't blog. A couple of years ago he tried writing a web column (which I edited), but he didn't have quite the right voice. And the cozy era in which he plied his trade-in which pundits would share off-the-record drinks with presidential candidates, and sometimes protect them-no longer exists.
But the Fat Man in the Middle Seat, as his memoir was titled, inspired some of the journalists around him to pound the pavement and work the phones. That may seem quaint in this age of e-mailed comments and quick-hit postings, but the old boy on the bus was onto something.
WashPost vs. White House
The Obama administration is again trying to control the way its officials are quoted.
Too many news outlets have gone along with this "quote approval" game in which an interview is granted and then the journalist has to ask which comments can be used, effectively ceding control to the White House. Many reporters have occasionally negotiated such matters with their sources, but the president's team has turned it into an institutionalized practice.
But the Washington Post pushed back last week, and on a particularly important story.
Reporter Bart Gellman, who shared some of the original NSA scoops with the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, disclosed that the agency had overstepped its legal authority thousands of times in its surveillance of Americans and foreign intelligence targets in the United States. The story was based on documents provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
The paper, naturally, warned the administration about the forthcoming story and tried to get comment. And then, says the Post, this happened:
The Obama administration referred all questions for this article to John DeLong, the NSA's director of compliance, who answered questions freely in a 90-minute interview. DeLong and members of the NSA communications staff said he could be quoted "by name and title" on some of his answers after an unspecified internal review. The Post said it would not permit the editing of quotes. Two days later, White House and NSA spokesmen said that none of DeLong's comments could be quoted on the record and sent instead a prepared statement in his name. The Post declines to accept the substitute language as quotations from DeLong. The statement is below.
Good for the Post for balking at this attempt at quote massaging-and for being (in that worn-out term) transparent about it.
Sometimes when you're getting decimated online, it's just better to apologize.
Profusely if possible.
Bryan Goldberg, founder of the popular sports site Bleacher Reporter, thought he had another winner on his hands with Bustle. After all, investors have kicked in $6.5 million for the site aimed at women. And while Goldberg happens to be a dude, he has hired only women to edit and write the thing.
Then he went into bragging mode with a post on the tech site Pando Daily, declaring that the women's market is "underserved" and "women's publishers have completely lost sight of which decade their readers are living in. ... Isn't it time for a women's publication that puts world news and politics alongside beauty tips?"
I know. Could he possibly be more condescending? Goldberg sounds like he just dropped in from some other planet. And he got savaged on the web.
"It over-simplified the editorial landscape.
"It failed to highlight the fact that there are a lot of great women's publications out there.
"It took a tongue-in-cheek approach for part of the fundraise announcement, at one point joking about cosmetics. That was a horrible decision.
Especially given how difficult it is for people (and women especially) to raise capital to bring their ideas to life. I put an immense amount of time into getting Bustle off the ground. I owed it to myself, my team, and all entrepreneurs to treat the moment with full seriousness.
"To a lot of people, it came across as pandering. And it doesn't matter if that wasn't my intention. That's how it came across. "Those were huge issues. I deserved to get called out for them."
Now we can focus on Bustle itself, which, unfortunately, is pretty mediocre so far: "Don't Go Topless, Even Where It's Legal." "This Is How Much It Costs to Raise a Kid." "Lindsay Lohan's New Role Makes Us Wonder."
Maybe Goldberg should study those women's publications he so casually dismissed-while eating his serving of crow.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.