As the trivial though bitter bickering between the White House and press corps intensifies, truths about their relationship emerge
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 28 February 2013 14.13 EST
I wrote earlier today about Bob Woodward's revealing criticisms of the Obama White House as part of the trivial but increasingly bitter fight between the White House and the DC press corps. But now, there's an even more extraordinary outburst from National Journal's Ron Fournier, formerly the Washington bureau chief for Associated Press. Fournier has written this incredibly petulant column today where he whines in paragraph after paragraph about being criticized in an unpleasant tone by an anonymous White House official over his reporting. Fournier is very angry about how he has been spoken to and instructed the official never to email him ever again: such fragile flowers they are. Fournier then makes the following confession about why he won't reveal the identity of this mean person; I know it's a bit naive, but I actually found this slightly shocking:
"Going back to my first political beat, covering Bill Clinton's administration in Arkansas and later in Washington, I've had a practice that is fairly common in journalism:
That's a blanket, automatic grant of anonymity extended in all cases for the benefit of the most powerful political officials in the country. They don't even have to ask for anonymity. There are no negotiations over it. They automatically get it. Fournier eagerly serves as an information dump: White House officials feed him what they want the public to hear; he dutifully goes forth and regurgitates it (when he deems it to be "fact"); and in all cases, he shields their identity from public knowledge. Whatever that's called, it isn't journalism - though I have no doubt, as he says, that it's an incredibly common practice in how the DC media ingratiates itself with the President and his top advisers.
The only similar confession I can recall is when Tim Russert was forced by a judicial proceeding to admit that when any senior government official calls him, his communications with them are presumptively off the record. In other words, by virtue of the limits he voluntarily imposed on himself, Russert was only free to report what he heard if these government officials give him advance, explicit permission to report it. As Dan Froomkin, then of the Washington Post, put it at the time: "That's not reporting, that's enabling. That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable." In some sense, Fournier's confessed practice is worse: he doesn't presumptively keep everything off the record: he gives them a standing, permanent offer to say what they want while hiding behind a shield of anonymity and he then spreads it to the world with no accountability possible.
As trivial as it is, this bickering between the White House and these media mavens is becoming quite intense. They're accustomed to mutually serving one another's interests, not trying to publicly embarrass the other. But I so hope this acrimony continues to escalate, as there's an important public value in having light shined on this behavior: behavior that they normally ensure festers in the dark.