It’s well-known in Washington that the Obama administration is frustrated by journalists who point out their hostile treatment of Fox News and other uncooperative members of the press corps. But what happens when an important official resorts to lies and distortions to intimidate a reporter into retracting a bias claim his boss would rather not be published?
On Sunday, July 20, The Daily Caller reported on the tense exchange between John Kerry and “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “After months of shutting Fox News out of his Sunday show appearances,” the report began, “a downed airliner in Ukraine and an ongoing Israeli invasion of Gaza compelled Secretary of State John Kerry to finally appear on ‘Fox News Sunday.’”
That was the last time that story mentioned Kerry’s consistent absence from Fox’s flagship Sunday program.
So we were surprised when an angry email appeared in this reporter’s inbox the next morning from the private Gmail account of Glen Johnson, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of public affairs and a top adviser to John Kerry.
“Off the record, please . . .” he began, before upbraiding this reporter for his “factually inaccurate” claim that Kerry was ducking “Fox News Sunday.”
“EVERY TIME the Secretary has done round-robin interviews with the Sunday shows, he has appeared on Fox,” Johnson exclaimed. “He did so this weekend, on March 2, on Nov. 24, and Sept. 1, when, after six months on the job, he started to doing [sic] public interviews.”
“We’d appreciate it if you’d share this with your editor and correct the record,” he wrote, after concluding with a screed on how Kerry has “strived to be fair and balanced” with Fox News. “Failing that, we hope the facts — not fiction — will lead to more accurate reporting/ conjecture going forward.”
Here’s that email in full:
TheDC would have honored Johnson’s off-the-record request — as we honor all valid requests to remain off-the-record — were it not for two crucial points: We never agreed to the request, and Johnson’s facts are just plain wrong.
First, this reporter never agreed to Johnson’s off-the-record request before he sent the email. That agreement is a key part of journalistic ethics well known to anyone who deals with media or has a prior history in reporting — as Johnson does.
Second and more importantly, an off-the-record request gives no one — particularly not a powerful member of government — carte blanche to lie and distort in an attempt to coerce a reporter into withdrawing a factual assertion his department is uncomfortable with.
And that’s what seems to have happened here, because Johnson’s key point against TheDC’s claim — that Kerry appeared on Fox News “EVERY TIME” he conducted interviews with the other major Sunday shows — is wholly inaccurate.
Kerry did not sit down with Chris Wallace on March 2, 2014, as Johnson claimed. TheDC knows this because we wrote up Wallace’s complaint the very next day.
“For the record, we invited Secretary of State Kerry to join us today,” the television reporter noted, angry that the secretary had ignored his viewers just two days after Russia invaded Crimea. “But although the White House put him out on all the other broadcast Sunday shows, they declined to make him available to us — or you.”
And Kerry also did not appear on “Fox News Sunday” on Nov. 24, 2013, as Johnson claimed. A transcript from that date reveals that Wallace led the program with reactions of two Republican senators on the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry went on CNN, ABC and CBS — but not Fox.
That means that until last Sunday, Kerry had not been on Chris Wallace’s program since Sept. 1, 2013. That’s over 10 months that he appeared on each of the other four major Sunday shows — most of them more than once — but not Fox. What better phrase to describe it than a shut out?
Johnson admitted his “mistake” once confronted. “Apologies for foisting inaccurate figures on you,” he wrote in an email response sent from his Gmail account — this time without even linking to his official government address.
He insisted “there has been no effort to shut out or dodge Fox” — but offered no explanation as to how a top strategic communications adviser to the secretary of state could have made an assertion so clearly and provably wrong.
It’s a question worth asking, because a media outlet without the resources TheDC possesses could have been confused and browbeaten into changing their lede once confronted with such an intimidating response. It can be scary for a reporter to be told he’s gotten the facts wrong, and doubly so when the accusation emanates from a powerful and authoritative federal agency.
TheDC asked Johnson if this was a deliberately dishonest attempt to bully a reporter into withdrawing a factual claim, but did not receive a response. It’s difficult to believe, however, that a communications professional with decades of experience would so carelessly impugn a media outlet’s credibility without even a cursory glance at the facts.
Last fall, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a report noting that the “control freak” Obama White House routinely calls up journalists to quibble over headlines, ledes and story premises. “Sometimes their levels of sensitivity amaze me,” said Washington Post Managing Editor Kevin Merida.
Trying to deceive a reporter in order to scuttle a narrative your boss finds troublesome? That sure fits the bill.