In a special package looking ahead to the Democratic convention next month, Politico published an Aug. 2 opinion piece by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in which the chair of the Democratic National Committee reiterated the party line for the umpteenth time: “So when Democrats join us in Charlotte in September, they’ll experience a convention unlike any other—one that will be the most open and accessible convention in history.”
Just a few days earlier, Charlotte Observer reporter Tim Funk posted an item at the paper’s “Campaign Watch” blog that told a different story: “Panel hosting ‘the most open and accessible’ convention holds another closed meeting,” the headline read.
While the ordinary party members and other average citizens may indeed find the convention to be “open and accessible,” the frustration evident in Funk’s post has been brewing for some time among reporters here, who have encountered persistent stonewalling and sometimes petty attempts at message control from convention organizers.
Way back in January, during the first media walk-through of convention facilities Observer columnist Mark Washburn marveled that the gathering of 500 journalists was officially off the record. Washburn’s column mined the scene for comic relief; among the sensitive bits of information discussed that day was the price media members would have to pay for a six-pack of Budweiser through the arena’s vendor ($31.50). But he also acknowledged in his opening the imbalance of power that sets the stage for these conflicts:
Silly me thinks that if you gather hundreds of media people in a city-owned building to discuss how much their suites are going to cost, it’s unseemly to order them to keep it on the down-low.
Silly me thinks if you’re spinning “the most open and accessible in history,” then you should skip the stealth stuff.
Theodore LeCompte, chief operating officer for the convention committee, stood up and set me straight.
“If there are issues with the ground rules, you are perfectly welcome not to attend this session,” he said.
Silly me stuck around.
That same imbalance is at the root of the recent controversy about routine “quote approval” in campaign coverage, set off by a much-discussed article by Jeremy Peters of The New York Times about the practice. As media critic Jack Shafer noted in a Poynter chat, officials in Washington and on the campaign trail can demand quote approval because their words are the scarce commodity and reporters are abundant.
The dynamic is similar for reporters covering the convention here as a local story: waiting for what one TV reporter called “teeny, tiny tidbits” to fall out of the mouths of convention representatives grew frustrating as the convention grew closer, with few details about security arrangements, fundraising levels, and public access. (The Secret Service security plan was just released in an Aug. 8 data dump, along with a campaign to encourage local residents to visit uptown Charlotte during the convention, which is—you guessed it—the “most open and accessible ever”.)
When the balance of power shifts so far in favor of sources, default assumptions shift in a way that frustrates journalists’ access to information—and that also sets the stage for coverage like this Washington Post story from June, which offered a platform to anonymous sources to take shots at beleaguered Duke Energy CEO and host committee co-chair Jim Rogers for fundraising shortfalls.
So what can reporters do when confronted like a situation like this? One obvious answer is to keep reporting, and find alternative ways to report the stories that matter to readers. The business surrounding the convention hasn’t been an easy beat to cover, but the Observer’s Andrew Dunn recently turned up some interesting details about the convention’s politically delicate relationship with Bank of America, and he did it with on-the-record material (though he had to note that details of the bank’s donations won’t be public until two months after the convention). Another Dunn article, about in-kind contributions to support the convention, used a good quote from an anonymous source—but it wasn’t built only on anonymous sources.
But it’s important, too, to make the barriers to information and methods for message control a story in their own right. That’s valuable because the press has an institutional investment in openness—but also because writing those stories will shine a light on how the media responds, which makes the sausage-making of reporting more transparent to readers and can prompt necessary discussions within media institutions about how to do better.
This is what Peters’s story on “quote approval” has done, prompting statements banning the policy from National Journal and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau, plus some new instruction from the top brass at The Washington Post. Bloomberg, The Associated Press, and other outlets also condemned the practice. More broadly, the coverage of quote approval has highlighted a sense that the journalist-politician power balance has gotten out of whack, with even Ari Fleischer—yes, that Ari Fleischer—worrying that the practice “turns the relationship between a source and a reporter entirely over to the source.” It remains to be seen what will happen, but the attention to a dynamic gone awry creates the possibility of change for the better.
That’s why, even if pieces like Funk’s or Washburn’s—or this Observer story about pointless redactions in DNC-related emails sent by city employees—are sometimes written out of peevishness or frustration, it’s good that they’re written. When the default assumption becomes that information will be withheld, journalism doesn’t just get more difficult—it becomes more susceptible to spin, score-settling, and hidden motivations, as the rules get bent. One way to push back at that struggle for power is to report on the tug of war clearly and publicly, prompting open debate among journalists and the public.