Politico Belatedly Provides a Welcome Explanation

Why news organizations should talk it out

In the wee hours of Thursday morning, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen took to his PressThink blog to spin forward from my post yesterday noting that Politico had excised a portion of its McChrystal coverage. The missing sentences had speculated that a freelance journalist like Michael Hastings, who wrote the Rolling Stone piece, may have been more likely to produce a controversial and forthright profile than his Pentagon beat reporter colleagues.

Politico’s managing editor, whom I contacted to ask what happened to the passage, declined to discuss it, writing to say, seemingly definitively, that “we don’t get into why we make editing decisions.”

Rosen made the right point, and then offered his own speculation as to what had happened:

What grounds could the Politico possibly have for redacting its own reporters’ work, and then refusing to talk to the profession’s leading journalism review about it? I can only speculate because the editors refuse to explain. But my guess would be that other beat reporters complained to the bosses and said…this makes us look bad! And the bosses, instead of standing up for their creed—revealing journalism state’s secrets—decided to cave and go Orwell on us. “That never happened” is the new story they offer readers. Along with “no more questions.”

They revealed too much, and quickly covered it up. That’s what I think. Now if John Harris, top editor of The Politico, wants to recover his senses and explain what was wrong with the original passage, I may change may mind.

As Rosen noted—and himself demonstrated by offering an unsubstantiated guess—without offering an explanation, Politico’s silence invited speculation, much of which would surely be unflattering.

Well, about twelve hours after Rosen’s post went up, Tim Grieve, a Politico deputy managing editor, wrote Rosen to say that without prompting from anyone else he removed the section “solely for the purposes of keeping the story tight and readable” as more information came in and was incorporated into the article. (By extension, I think we can take Grieve’s explanation to mean that Politico and reporters Carol Lee and Gordon Lubold stand behind the sentences’ original intent.)

It’s an entirely plausible explanation, and one that I would have happily passed on to CJR’s readers in my original post. (And if Grieve’s boss, managing editor Bill Nichols, would have shared the original version of the article, as I asked, concluding that it had been extensively revised and updated beyond the missing portion would have been a cinch.)

Instead, Politico decided to stand silent.

What ensued in the approximately twenty-four hours since Nichols conveyed that decision by telling me that, as a matter of course, Politico wouldn’t “get into … editing decisions” was an entirely predictable consequence of that no comment.

My post was spotlighted by many other press critics and reporters working online: Jack Shafer, Michael Calderone, and Greg Mitchell among them. Rosen’s speculation was featured on the industry water cooler site Romenesko, at Harper’s, and who knows where else.

A simple lesson: when a news organization feels it has a good explanation for an action that may have struck some as inappropriate or controversial, it should offer it, allowing readers and others to hear its reasoning, and perhaps win the doubters over.

Transparency won’t always silence everyone; sometimes reasonable (or unreasonable) minds will continue to disagree. And if there isn’t a good explanation, what’s wrong with simply saying “Our bad, we’ll try to do better in the future?”

That would be honest. And isn’t that, the Mirage Bar aside, something that journalists are supposed to be?

There’s something especially frustrating about a news organization that gets tight-lipped when asked for an explanation. Not to state the obvious, but that’s because asking for explanations is exactly what the organization exists to do. The hypocrisy of asking one thing of your sources and subjects but doing otherwise when the tables are turned is plain to see.

Explaining these judgment calls and editorial decisions ensures—and assures readers—that there’s an ongoing process inside the newsroom, where decisions are reevaluated and, if found faulty, learned from.

Even with yesterday’s reticence in mind, Politico has consistently been remarkably open. My CJR colleagues and I have benefited from many conversations and e-mail exchanges with their reporters and editors, unfettered by obtrusive PR handlers. Our reporting has benefited—and consequently our readers’ understanding, and Politico readers’ understanding, have benefited.

While as a media writer I certainly have a vested interest in journalists being transparent, I’ll acknowledge that from time to time a “no comment” will be reasonable. But it shouldn’t be or become routine.

If it does, you run the danger of setting up a newsroom culture that suggests that mistakes—or outright journalistic sins and misdemeanors—can be brushed by without explanation or correction. I can’t imagine that’s a good long-term strategy.

Rosen’s post also noted that Politico declined to explain another element of their Hastings/McChrystal coverage—their decision to host a PDF of Rolling Stone’s unpublished article before the magazine had published—when queried by my colleague Greg Marx.

Despite ample opportunity, Nichols and editor-in-chief John Harris declined to explain the thinking behind their site’s posting of Rolling Stone’s copyrighted, unpublished, content.

And so I’ll ask again: Care to explain?

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.