The voice on the other end of the line was grave. It belonged to Kristie Greco, the top leadership aide to Representative James Clyburn. As the No. 3 Democrat in the House, Clyburn, a one-time civil rights activist from South Carolina, is the most prominent African-American member of Congress. He’s got close ties to both minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Valerie Jarrett, the senior White House adviser and longtime friend of the Obamas whom Washington insiders consider the power behind the throne. “There will be consequences,” Greco told me.
Clyburn was angry about an article I had published that day, May 25, 2011, in which the congressman blamed most of President Obama’s political problems on the color of his skin. I later learned that Jarrett had phoned Clyburn within hours of my piece going online—where it drew hundreds of comments, more than any other previous article of mine in such a short period—and taken him to the woodshed for focusing on race, a topic the country’s first black president tries to avoid. Clyburn insisted I sensationalized his comments.
The consequences were immediate: Clyburn stopped talking to me, even though McClatchy, my employer, owns five papers in South Carolina, including the largest, The State, which is in the congressman’s hometown of Columbia. Overnight, Clyburn’s staff, friends, and associates stopped talking with me. I was dropped from his congressional email list. My messages and calls went unanswered.
Clyburn wasn’t the first lawmaker to go mum on me. Six months earlier, Republican Joe Wilson, infamous for his “You lie!” outburst during Obama’s 2009 healthcare address to a joint session of Congress, stopped all contact, too. His beef was with a series of stories I’d written on an ethics probe into his use of per diem foreign-travel funds.
Colleagues say I must be doing something right if I’ve irritated two members of Congress who are among the most liberal (Clyburn) and the most conservative (Wilson). But as this freezeout has dragged on, I’ve come to view their petulant stances as extreme expressions of a broader and more destructive effort in Washington politics to marginalize independent journalism.
Politicians giving reporters the silent treatment is an old tactic, of course, but in the past it was almost always temporary. Greco’s imperious dictum crystalized a sense that had been growing in me during the most recent of my 19 years in Washington: Many elected representatives no longer view talking with independent reporters as part of their duty in American democracy, but rather as a privilege to be granted or withdrawn as reward or punishment for coverage deemed favorable or unfavorable.
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Clyburn and Wilson’s decisions to shun me seemingly without end are just the most radical of a series of changes in how Washington officeholders treat reporters that reflect this more mercenary and dismissive view of a free press. For instance, there is the increased use of talking points and other attempts at total message control; the growing employment of political consultants and congressional offices that are run like campaign operations; the now common demand for pre-publication quote approval; and the shrinking opportunities for journalists to question elected officials without the duress of conference calls (on which you may or may not get to ask something), gang-bangs in the halls of Congress with 20 other reporters, or the demand for written questions in advance.
In his purported search for national security leaks, Obama’s aggressive actions against reporters—authorizing his Justice Department to snoop through the emails and phone records of AP journalists and Fox News’s James Rosen (no relation) are just the latest examples—have exacerbated the deterioration of relations between pols and reporters. “Journalists have often been frustrated by what they see as a disdainful and belittling attitude toward them by members of the White House’s communications office,” the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote in May.
Politicians may not have a constitutional or even an ethical obligation to speak with journalists, but they have a civic responsibility to do so. That’s how our representative government works: The press serves as a check on government on the public’s behalf. It’s an idea that goes back to the country’s founding. Despite scurrilous attacks on him from what were then highly partisan newspapers, Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong defender of a free press as a “fourth estate” that he considered at least as essential as the three main branches he helped design. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” he famously wrote to a friend in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.