She said You said

My Nieman colleague and friend Philippa Thomas has been in the news herself for the Tweet that felled a government spokesperson.  She just gave her first interview on the subject, to Brian Lehrer’s Web video site (see The BBC’s Philippa Thomas on P.J. Crowley).

Lehrer did a straight piece, not delving into the criticism she’s received, which has mostly focused on why she double-checked with the spokesperson, P.J. Crowley, whether he was on the record. The comments highlight a tension within journalism, especially news reporting in all its forms. On the one hand, we present an ‘official’ record of events, thus establishing ourselves as part of the status quo. We want people to say things on the record, as a sign of its truth-with-a-small-t. On the other hand, the record often hides that truth-with-a-small-t. It can prevent us from carrying out one of the essential functions of journalism, preventing those in power and prominence from abusing their positions.

Why would a journalist check to make sure something was on the record? Not all journalists do. But there is a sense of fairness that governs journalism and our reaction to it. Had Philippa not asked, someone would have taken her to task for ambushing this poor Crowley fellow and causing him to be fired. Snarky things would have been said about the press’s insatiable and indecent lust for something sensational, the way it callously destroys lives in pursuit of gossip. Media has power.  We see that when someone uses clandestine videotaping to entrap an NPR executive (I won’t call that activism – activism combats perceived societal ills). Some journalists, perhaps most, but by no means all, do not want to entrap people. So you identify yourself as a journalist and you may go further and warn people that you plan to report what they say. A journalist may reasonably and ethically think it important that in the context of an informal discussion, it is not enough to identify yourself as a journalist. You must also ensure that someone who has said something newsworthy recognizes that you intend to report it.

There will still be people who think it is absurd not to report the comment regardless. On the other hand, a beat reporter might actually wish that it was off the record. After all, Crowley is just a spokesperson, and almost certainly is saying what someone in actual power thinks. That story might be harder to get at now.

Of course, Philippa was not in a position where she would need to interact with Crowley again on stories, nor could she report on dissension at State. She had little incentive to protect him from himself.  I’m taking a behavioral economics course, and economists would say what she did was thus not rational. But economists and psychologists note that in the Ultimatum game, some 15 percent to 20 percent of players still contribute money in the last round of the game, exactly the opposite of behavior economists would think ‘rational.’ Please note that economists call ‘rational’ what everyone else calls ‘selfish.’ (That may say more about economists than it does about the rest of the world.) Such people model a better side of human nature.

But while I take Philippa’s request as a sign that she is modeling a better side of journalistic nature, I can’t avoid the critic who accused her of being a typical media suck-up. That gets us back to the tension of journalism: to be the ‘official’ voice for a community means not getting cut out by the various groups within the community, including its government. That creates a tension of, at the least, familiarity. It does challenge journalists and news organizations. It always will, and we who practice journalism must be on guard against giving favor to the powerful and prominent in order for them to speak to us. Happily, I was earlier this year a screener for a major journalism prize, the Worth Bingham Award for investigative reporting in newspapers. In a time when newspapers are widely acknowledged to be in decline, the depth of the submissions was incredible. It was agonizing to have to winnow down the field for the final round of judging. There was no sucking-up going on in those stories. There were more than 100 submissions, most of them with multiple parts. Looks like sucking-up isn’t so typical, after all.

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