(Full disclosure: I am not friends with Erik Wemple. In fact, I don’t trust him. I’ve made fun of him to this face, on the phone, in writing and behind his back. I will continue to do all of these things in the future.)
Most media bloggers have their personal crusades. For Wemple, Washington Post‘s “reported” media blogger who helped drive then-Allbritton-owned TBD into the ground, it’s access and transparency.
Not a bad cause.
What prompted my initial eye roll this week was a tweet from HuffPost media writer Michael Calderone who called Wemple’s story published Thursday on media transparancy a “must-read.” In the story was a big fat shout-out to Calderone for a story he had written on pressing CBS “60 Minutes” about its disastrous Benghazi coverage and the subsequent stonewalling that occurred when he sought comment. I tend to think it tacky when reporters urge people to read a story in which the writer gives them a giant smooch. (But full disclosure: I like Calderone, respect his skills and have always gotten along with him. I also really love mocking the concept of a Washington full disclosure as often as possible.)
The story itself is a vomitous approach to journalism by Wemple, who thinks that just because he has a byline that other media organizations owe him full transparency anytime he wants it on any subject he deems important enough to gain it. He complains about Sharyl Attkisson and CBS not responding to his requests for updates on confirmed breaches on her computers even though she has appeared on air about it and the network has confirmed the hacking. He doesn’t understand why Politico, for example, would blackball him on his story severely critiquing Chief White House Correspondent Mike Allen for the perception of sucking up to advertisers in the morning Playbook. He claims Politico is not a transparent organization. As President and CEO Jim VandeHei put it, they decided not to “play ball” with him and called his story “nonsense.” This bothered Wemple. How dare they not get back to him.
Wemple wrote, “How many senators and bureaucrats would love to take that route when confronted by Politico reporters?” He also added that “Politico didn’t return an inquiry on its transparency.” But at this point, who would expect them to?
In the real world, where people breathe and sneeze and flutter their eyelashes, reporters have to earn people’s trust. They build it, work for it, fight for it. Whether any of us like it, news organizations have choices and play favorites. They like some reporters. They despise others. You don’t just automatically get access because you think people owe you answers, especially when they know you’re out to trash them. You don’t just get access by making the argument that reporters whine about transparency at the White House — therefore why shouldn’t media reporters like Wemple get it from any news organization he wants it from?
Here’s a basic truth that Wemple likely already knows: Some members of the media don’t believe they ought to be covered in the same vein as reporters covering the government or other beats around town. Some believe they shouldn’t be covered at all. As one reporter told me once when I wanted to write on something he had tweeted, “It’s not comfy.” Can you imagine if a reporter rang President Obama‘s press office and the response was: “Sorry, it’s just not comfy”?
That response from the reporter was preposterous. But it doesn’t mean his refusal to discuss the topic was not within his right — it was. As I recall, the topic was not on the scale of protecting people’s lives or exposing unsanitary conditions in the workplace. The higher the stakes, the more outrageous it gets. Reporters should be able to disclose when a government or lawmaker’s office cuts them off or refuses to answer questions. But the reality is grim: If they do, access and transparency only worsens.
Like some other media reporters, I find it strange and frustrating that big news networks run the tightest ships around and that flaks nearly always refuse to be quoted by name if they ever even get back to you. Wemple makes this point, but it’s one that has been made countless times before. He puffs up his own work to the level of political reporters trying to get info out of the White House. Sorry, but writing stories like CNN should hire a female to host “Reliable Sources” (hmmm…wasn’t Wemple interviewed for that position and doesn’t he have a penis?) and Politico‘s advertising practices don’t really rise to the level of war and the way federal agencies operate.
As with most organizations, if they think it’s in their interest to comment, they will. If not, they won’t. Same goes for the administration, where, yes, the stakes are higher and far more important. But Wemple seems to be blinded by his own pompousness that somehow he automatically deserves it.
In my experience, Politico is among the more transparent news organizations in terms of answering questions even when it doesn’t suit their purposes. There was the time I called one of their Politico Pro reporters a “dick” in a story and they never stopped speaking to me. In numerous instances, Editor-in-Chief John Harris replied to questions with extensive on-the-record quotes even when I thought there was no chance he’d respond. Such as when they weirdly posted the headline, “2 U.S. Troops killed in Afghanistan insider attackhaha i.” Or when Harris was seen in the background of a video all twisted up like a pretzel. Or when several reporters got restructured out of their jobs, leaving the newsroom in a state of chaos. On other occasions, they’ve ignored the hell out of me. That’s the way it goes.
The degree to which Wemple covers Politico strikes some as rather obsessive. In the same way that Washingtonian used to cover the Washington Post as a beat, it appears that Wemple has made Politico his top priority. “Watching this from a far, it strikes me as nuts to think Politico would talk to him,” a media observer told The Mirror. “It would be like inviting your stalker in for drinks. It might be fine – but it might also turn out the stalker is as deranged as he seems.”
The Atlantic and National Journal are also repeatedly helpful and have even let me freely roam around parties at the publisher’s home. The Hill and Roll Call are also decently responsive, but not as frequently or aggressively as the others. Before I worked at The Daily Caller, my new boss Tucker Carlson would nearly always get back to me with a response. And he didn’t always like it. I wrote about firings and hirings and a then-employee who went on TV with her breasts hanging out of her shirt. So no, he wasn’t always ecstatic to hear from me.
The best relationships with publicists and editors are the ones where the waters can get choppy and the relationship remains reasonably intact. To be sure, some outlets cut you off at any sign of criticism — try Wemple’s own Washington Post, whose PR department was furious when I wrote about their “Valentine’s Day Bloodbath”of 2013 when they laid off some 54 people and tried to do so in a hush-hush manner. I was yelled at and mysteriously removed from all press lists. So no, it’s not terribly impressive that Wemple got himself invited into Executive Editor Marty Baron‘s office for a chit chat on WaPo Magazine’s relationship with the business side of the newspaper. I would expect that the editor of a paper might have his door open to his employees.
It’s also not terribly impressive that Wemple uses Poynter‘s Andrew Beaujon in his story today as a “expert” on access and transparency. He “fully-discloses” that Beaujon is his “friend” and former coworker. As some are aware, in 2013, Beaujon issued a whopping 42 formal corrections on his stories — not exactly the kind of “expert” most people would look to for guidance. (Full disclosure: I recently gave Beaujon the finger on Twitter when he wrote and asked for comment for a story he was writing on me for TNR. I have no regrets and look forward to giving him the finger again when the situation warrants it.) Wemple also quotes NYT‘s David Carr, another “fully-disclosed” friend and former colleague.
Can his story get any more incestuous?
In the summer of 2013, Wemple, — as a reminder, Washington Post‘s “reported” media blogger — wrote to tell me he was writing a profile on me for Washington Post Magazine concerning my then job at FishbowlDC. Seriously, when you have to remind readers that you are a reporter who reports, there’s something wrong with the picture.
But so be it. I knew Wemple a bit. Not to the point where I’d ever trust him with a profile. But the rule was I had to check with my company before giving interviews. My boss replied with an immediate “no” in a clipped tone that told me not to try to change his mind. I did try a few more times. But clip, clip, clip. The answer was no. Until a few weeks later when Wemple persisted and said he was going ahead with his story with or without my assistance. The higherups returned with something like, ‘You can talk to him, but you don’t have to. It’s up to you.’ I was on the fence. As a journalist friend told me a few different times, if someone is going to write 3,000 words on you, then you want at least 1,000 of them to be yours.”
Still, I was always leaning no. My gut said no. But I understood my friend’s wisdom. Soon the decision was made for me. I accidentally ran into Wemple one day outside his home near Logan Circle. He seemed very eager to get chummy with me and told me the magazine had killed his story. The reason he offered was vague — something about him not being in the news section. He gobbledy-gooked it up real good to the point where I didn’t even care why they killed it, but was grateful they had. He told me the theme he’d settled on was: “The Business of Mean — does it sell?” with me as his main act. I thought about all the people I’d met with who called Wemple “slime” and said they didn’t trust him. A lightbulb went off: “The Business of Slime — does it sell?” He told me he was “appealing” their decision. It never happened.
Previous dealings with Wemple also dimmed my desire to talk to him. In one instance, he gave a woman who had falsely reported that I’d been canned several graphs to trash me while never delving into what caused her to print her fabrication in the first place, an act that would get her fired at most publications. He wrote that it was irrelevant. He gave me two lines. You can bet if it had been one of his so-called “friends” that he likes to disclose in his stories, he would have been much harder on her. In another instance, he called to talk about my leaving my last job but never told me what he was actually writing about. He gave a woman who sued me and my former employer some 22 graphs and 1,555 words to tell “her side” of the story without ever questioning her remarks. He gave me one graph. Total number of words: 74.
Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to talk to him.
So-called transparency is not a given. And no, media coverage does not always rise to the level of holding public officials accountable. Wemple and other reporters must earn their sources’ trust and not behave like they deserve it under any and all circumstances.