I am not naïve. I have not been naïve for a long time. Not, in fact, since 1994, when I was living in Washington, D.C., and went to a party at the elegant manse of a well-known ABC News correspondent.
Correspondents from NBC and CBS were there, too. So was Attorney General Janet Reno. She was schmoozing with the newsies; the newsies were schmoozing with her. I said to my wife, "This is not a good idea."
My wife said, "What isn't?"
I said, "This coziness between reporters and government officials."
My wife said, "You think reporters should be adversaries?"
I said, "No. But I don't think they should be waiters, either. A journalist working in Washington should not be serving canapés to the Attorney General and asking her what she wants to drink and then doing a piece on the Justice Department."
My wife said, "Don't be naïve." And, as I swore a few paragraphs ago, I no longer am.
But I am still troubled by the guest lists for Washington social events that so casually mix reporters and reportees. So is Norman Solomon, no naïf himself. In his "Media Beat" column on the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting Web site, Solomon quotes CNN anchor Judy Woodruff, who recently concluded an interview with the new White House chief of staff by saying the following: "All right, Andy Card, we look forward to working with you — to covering your administration."
Granted, Woodruff did not drop a salmon-covered toast point onto his plate, nor did she splash a little more Cutty over Card's rocks. But still — "we look forward to working with you?"
Says Solomon: "If major news outlets were committed to independent journalism, Woodruff's statement on national television Jan. 19 would have caused quite a media stir."
It did not, and the reason is that Washington journalists have been partying with government officials for several decades now, ever since the heyday of the Alsop brothers, columnists Joe and Stewart. The former, the more gregarious of the two, explained this seeming apostasy by saying that the closer he got to his sources, the more he would know and the better he could serve his reading public.
Sounds reasonable, but it is not — for two reasons.
First, the closer a reporter gets to his sources, the more he might know, but the less he might be willing to reveal. In his FAIR column, Solomon refers to a perceptive fellow named Walter Karp.
"It is a bitter irony of source journalism," Karp wrote some years ago in Harper's, "that the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the 'best' sources."
Second, some of the greatest reporting of the twentieth century was done by men and women who were not useful to the powerful. Upton Sinclair: The Jungle. Ray Stannard Baker: The Railroad On Trial. Ida Tarbell: The History of the Standard Oil Company. Lincoln Steffens: The Shame of the Cities. And more recently, Tom Wolfe: Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.
No, a journalist who buddies up to government officials, who wants to work with them, is seeking prestige for himself, not illumination for his readers or viewers.
And a journalist who reads these sentiments of mine and scoffs at them, who dismisses Karp and Solomon and Burns as naïve, is revealing his disdain for the feelings of millions of Americans who believe that the press does not serve their interests, but its own. Insider journalism leads to an outsider populace.
On the brighter side, things could be worse. Imagine a correspondent meeting a cabinet officer at a party and saying, "Hi, my name is Judy. I'll be your reporter. Let me tell you about our specials for today."
It has not yet come to that.