First, when someone seeks to go on background or off the record, I always ask myself, “What are this person’s motivations for talking to me?” Anyone who wants to get information into the pages of a newspaper without standing behind it by name has an agenda of some form. Understanding that motivation is crucial before deciding whether the information is viable for a piece. I view the use and misuse of anonymous sources in the bigger context of presenting a fair and accurate piece to the reader.
LCB: Let’s say you woke up one day to discover that you were no longer Gabriel Sherman, media reporter for the Observer, covering a very leaky New York media scene but that you were Gabriel Sherman, member of the White House press corps, covering a somewhat less leaky administration. How do you think you’d fare? Are any of the skills you’ve honed in your current position transferable? What story or source would you go after first?
GS: Interesting question. Undoubtedly, Washington is an intensely competitive journalism environment. Down there you have the Washington Post, New York Times and every big city daily, news magazine and television outlet fighting for exclusives. Not to mention blogs. It’s brutal. But in certain ways, covering the media in New York has many of the same competitive qualities. While DC is a political town, New York is a media city. The media reporters here are all very talented and driven, and the competition pushes everyone to find better sources and produce better [stories]. Having covered some hotly chased stories recently, from Judy Miller to Bob Woodward, I think my experience here would be an asset down in Washington.
The Washington story I’m most intrigued by is the obsessive secrecy of the Bush administration. As hard as it is to find out what’s going on inside the Conde Nast cafeteria, cracking the leak-proof White House would be a thrilling challenge.
LCB: Over Thanksgiving, Gawker asked you what you and some other media people what were thankful for. One of the things you indicated you were giving thanks for in 2005 was the New York Times’ Thursday Styles (we’re also very happy it exists). Pretend I’m a Thursday Styles editor and you’re pitching a story to me. Go.
GS: Hmm. Can’t I just have Alex Kuczynski’s “Critical Shopper” column? I’ve always wanted to get paid to spend money.