DC deep-freeze

Pols no longer need us more than we need them
July 1, 2013

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.

Look who’s not talking Clyburn, left, and Wilson’s decisions to shut the author out are part of a larger effort to bypass the press. (Left: Joshua Roberts / Getty Images; right: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

There is no single or simple explanation for this change in the press’s relationship with elected officials. Bruce Cain, a Stanford University political scientist, points to, among other things, “the professionalization of politics” and the increased use of outside consultants who urge candidates to stay on message at all costs, a practice that has helped turn governing into a permanent campaign.

And Washington reporters aren’t without blame for their increasingly adversarial relationship with politicians, given the cynical and superficial nature of so much political coverage. For instance, journalists praised both Obama and President George W. Bush during their initial White House runs for their disciplined campaigns and ability to hammer home their carefully honed messages over and over. At the same time, each was crucified for the occasional speaking gaffe, the kind of misstep that is all too human. If we’re talking about message politics, the clear message politicians get from journalists is: Play it safe, avoid impromptu comments, and minimize the need to answer tough questions.

But the evolution of ever-more-sophisticated ways for politicians to communicate directly with constituents and supporters is clearly a big part of what’s happening, too. From partisan outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC to the explosion of social media, politicians have all sorts of ways to avoid inconvenient questions from reporters. Why bother with us when they’ve got their own networks, magazines, websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and blast emails?

Kevin Diaz, a Washington correspondent for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is getting the silent treatment from Representative Michele Bachmann because of his coverage of alleged campaign-finance violations tied to her 2012 run for the Republican presidential nomination. Thanks to that run, Bachmann has a huge nationwide email list and a Twitter following of tens of thousands of conservative activists. She doesn’t need reporters like Diaz to get her message out or raise money. “If there’s an information superhighway, we’re increasingly on the off-ramps,” Diaz says. “We don’t matter as much as we used to.”

It was telling that Bachmann didn’t hold a news conference in late May when she announced that she won’t seek re-election to Congress, opting instead to release a slick online video. “We must be able to poke and meddle,” objected New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, in the wake of Bachmann’s sidestep. “It may not be a pretty sight, and we journalists may not be doing it in a pretty way, but eliminate that and you wind up with something even less pretty: Bachmann, robotically composed, telling you that she’s quitting for purely high-minded reasons, with the vigor of the republic foremost in her heart. That’s a whole lot further from the truth than anything we wretched scribes put out.”

Bachmann’s reach is dwarfed by Obama’s online orbit of more than 32 million Twitter followers and a massive email list fed by White House aides and Organizing for Action, the powerful political apparatus now run by the president’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina.

On April 19, just before midnight and shortly after Obama had commented on the capture of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama, retweeted a typical digital communiqué, this one from Alex Morgan, a star on the 2012 Olympic gold-medal-winning women’s soccer team. “Watching the news and feeling patriotic,” Morgan tweeted to her nearly 1.2 million followers. “Gotta love pres Obama’s speeches.”

In the old days–not even 20 years ago–lawmakers sent printed letters to constituents using a congressional postage system called franking. In 1996, I reported that Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina was among the Senate’s top frankers, a taxpayer-funded perk that contradicted his regular rhetorical bashing of Big Government. Most lawmakers, however, sent franked letters only from time to time. Today, politicians’ constant online presence, maintained by armies of staffers and outside hired guns, surely costs Americans much more than the quaint system of franking ever did, and yet it’s accepted as business as usual in our digital lives.

Facebook even runs secretive seminars at which it trains lawmakers and their aides how to exploit social media. I tweeted a message to Adam Conner, Facebook’s 28-year-old public-policy manager in Washington who runs the seminars, to ask for an interview, but he didn’t respond. Instead, I received an email from a Facebook PR staffer named Brandon Lepow, who first sounded cooperative but ended up emailing his regrets. “Unfortunately we aren’t going to be able to accommodate your request for an interview,” Lepow wrote. “However, if you are looking for something to use for your story, feel free to attribute the following to a Facebook spokesperson: ‘Facebook is excited to be a major communication platform where members of Congress and other elected officials can engage with their constituents on important issues that matter in their district and state.'”

Feel free, indeed. Ironically, this kind of non-answer echoes the responses reporters routinely receive from lawmakers these days.

Digital technology has changed the interaction between Washington pols and reporters in other ways, too. The traditional phone and in-person interviews are often augmented, and at times replaced, by email exchanges. While convenient, these exchanges give lawmakers more opportunity to rehearse and rehash their responses to questions. Worse, the responses are often crafted by congressional flacks whose role as Internet intermediaries is easily concealed.

In a July 15, 2012, article, New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters claimed that it was becoming “the default position” for Washington correspondents to grant their sources pre-publication “quote approval” and to make changes if they wished. In a speech at the National Press Club the following week, James Asher, McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief, announced that he had prohibited the practice among his reporters and called on other news organizations to follow suit. The Associated Press and the National Journal took similar stances, and The New York Times imposed new restrictions.

From the fiscal cliff to threats of government shutdowns, we are constantly reminded that American politics has become more ideologically hardline, less open to compromise. The marginalization of independent journalism is both a consequence of this partisan gridlock (the right has used the liberal-media bogeyman to inoculate itself against criticism for more than 40 years) and part of the reason that gridlock is able to endure. If an elected official only communicates with the public either directly, via social media, or through “friendly” press, his ideas and statements never get scrutinized, let alone challenged; there is no need to compromise because he is always able to claim to be doing “what the public wants.” So we end up with phony and absurd debates like the endless prattle over “death panels” in Obamacare, which has resurfaced most of the 37 times the House has voted to repeal the landmark health-insurance law, most recently in mid-May.

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I’ve tried to patch things up with Wilson and Clyburn. While covering the federal trial over South Carolina’s voter-ID law in August 2012, I interviewed the state Attorney General Alan Wilson, the congressman’s son, who had sued the Justice Department for blocking the law under the Voting Rights Act.

After our interview, I asked Wilson if he would help broker a rapprochement with his father. The next time we talked, he told me that his father was amenable to détente. I followed up by stopping by the congressman’s office and leaving him a handwritten note.

In February, I covered Clyburn when he spoke at Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Afterward, I asked if we could re-establish communications. “I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. “But I need to run it by Hope.”

Hope Derrick is Clyburn’s communications director. I was taken aback. “But you’re Hope’s boss,” I said. “You’re the congressman.”

I thought I saw a glimmer of regret pass through his eyes. “I don’t want to throw my staff under the bus,” he said. “You can understand that.”

Returning to our office, I described the encounter to my bureau chief, and asked if he would follow up with Derrick. He sent her an email relaying Clyburn’s willingness to hit reset. Her response arrived forthwith: “Nothing has changed, and we will not be providing direct access for Mr. Rosen,” she wrote.

As for Wilson, I’m still waiting for an answer to the note I left with his aides.

James Rosen is a congressional enterprise reporter for McClatchy Newspapers. He received the 2012 National Press Club Award for Regional Washington Reporting. A former Moscow correspondent, he is a 1986 graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.