When Robert Moses, the notorious New York master builder, wanted to cow the journalists who covered him, he knew he didn’t have to harangue or threaten his way to a favorable story. Food and drink did the trick. A reporter on the Moses beat, whether covering the opening of a new hydroelectric power dam or a row of toll booths, could expect to be treated to a fountain of liquor, a 40-foot buffet table, or a chartered airplane packed with celebrities. In addition to these Dionysian ribbon cuttings, Moses hosted “working” lunches for the press, a way to advance his agenda while offering special access.
“Hospitality has always been a potent political weapon,” Robert Caro wrote in The Power Broker, his seminal biography of Moses. “Moses used it like a master.”
This practice continues unabated, as made clear in a recent batch of hacked emails released by WikiLeaks. The meals may be smaller and the settings less lavish, but the goals remain the same: for a person in a position of power, in this case Hillary Clinton, to groom a friendlier press corps. Non-journalists, as well as conservative outlets, reacted with anger and incredulity at emails–the Clinton campaign has not disputed their validity–that showed the campaign setting up off-the-record dinners and cocktails with John Podesta, the campaign chairman, and Joel Benenson, her chief strategist. (The Huffington Post had reported on the Podesta meeting previously.) Journalists mostly shrugged at the revelations.
Their dismissal is misguided. The emails may highlight business as usual, but it is a business practice that has helped stoke distrust of the press in 2016 and has propelled a narrative, pushed by Donald Trump, that the mainstream media is in the bag for Clinton. The implications of that will linger long after Election Day.
On April 9th, 2015–shortly before Clinton officially announced she was running for president–Podesta cooked for at least 28 reporters at his Washington DC home. The reporters came from leading national outlets like the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NBC. According to the leaked email, the dinner had five goals for the Clinton campaign: “Getting to know” reporters closely covering Clinton; “setting expectations” for the announcement and “launch period”; “framing” Clinton’s message and the race; “demystifying key players” on Clinton’s campaign; and “having fun and enjoying good cooking.”
For reporters, the goals were likely twofold: to cultivate high-level Clinton sources to bolster their campaign coverage, and make themselves known to the influential people serving a woman who is favored to become the next president of the United States. Journalists will argue they need to get drinks with sources, attend dinners and play the role of chum to gain the kind of access they need to do their jobs. No right-thinking reporter would turn down the opportunity to lap up Podesta’s cooking.
But outsiders not privy to the favor trading of traditional journalism are right to decry the clubby relationship between reporters, particularly those covering presidential candidates, and the campaigns they must hold accountable. In an election year that has been defined by the failure of elite political operatives and members of the media to anticipate the volcanic discontent that drove the insurgencies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the idea of reporters and campaigns periodically shedding their oppositional roles to party together seems particularly odious. An already jaded public takes a whiff and smells collusion.
You’re less likely to spit in the face that’s smiling back at you from across the dinner table.
Witness WikiLeaks emails that showed one reporter offering up whole chunks of a story for Podesta to read before publication in a seeming effort to ensure it conformed to the portrait the campaign chief had painted of his fundraising efforts. Or a Clinton email identifying a “friendly” reporter to help shape their campaign narrative. Clinton still does come in for plenty of harsh coverage, and the national reporters they cultivate will bite the hand that feeds them. No tactic is foolproof.
If the reporters understand, implicitly or explicitly, that these events exist solely to advance the agenda of a particular candidate, why show up? Why spend a night in the spin zone over Podesta’s creamy risotto, knowing the campaign is trying to co-opt you? If reporters can document with outrage the ways in which lobbyists fete elected officials, why is the practice okay when reporters are on the receiving end?
It’s worth remembering that the most inspired reporting from this presidential race has sprung from people who clearly didn’t need to cajole high-powered campaign sources to get their scoops. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post has doggedly documented how little Trump has given to charities, inviting readers on Twitter to help him along. Andrew Kaczynski, a former BuzzFeed reporter now at CNN, has spent the election cycle exhuming old audio clips of Trump that contradict public statements he makes now, doing his digging without glad-handing. It’s also not clear how a Podesta dinner would’ve helped The New York Times’ Michael Schmidt break the news that Clinton had used a personal email account to conduct government business when she was secretary of state.
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But there’s no denying that there’s a certain warm feeling you get when a particularly important or famous person recognizes you. It’s an age-old sensation dating back to the schoolyard days: you know you are in, not out.
Before I go on, let me say that I have not always practiced what I’m preaching here. For two years, I was a member of the New York City Hall press corps and attended several off-the-record parties at Gracie Mansion, the lavish mayoral residence on the Upper East Side. I went because, in addition to thinking the visit would be good for building sources, it felt nice to amble around a mansion with a buzz. Important people were around me, so I felt important. I regret going now and I don’t intend to show up again. No knock against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hors d’oeuvres, all reimbursed by my former employers at the New York Observer, but it makes far more sense for the mayor to host one of these soirees than for me to show up. I can–and should–do my job despite them.
The trouble with the Moses, Podesta, and Gracie Mansion parties isn’t so much the degree to which reporters are fed and supplied with booze. A mansion versus a townhouse, five glasses of white wine against one–quantity is not immaterial, though it’s also not the point. Socializing with powerful people can soften reporting. You’re less likely to spit in the face that’s smiling back at you from across the dinner table.
The best reporting is done on the margins, away from the siren charms of power and prestige.
Caro, a former Newsday reporter, saw the folly in journalists drawing too close to their sources. Of Moses, he wrote: “Coupled with his overpowering personality, a buffet often did as much for a proposal as a bribe.” Lunches with Moses were “relentlessly social: friendly, easy, gracious. For most men, this setting made disagreement difficult.” Moses knew his elegant feasts were an excellent way to reinforce the status quo. The press happily obliged.
Since WikiLeaks did not target Trump, we do not know the extent to which his campaign tried to court the press, though based on the ways he either tried to curtail access or denigrate reporters, it’s unclear whether they were ever extended the same dinnertime courtesy. Sure, journalists reportedly went to a strip joint with Trump advisers, but that kind of clubbiness has been more the exception, not the rule. In New York and Washington, Trump’s vulgar populism is anathema to the reporters who either cover him or look on from the distance in horror. The millions of people who intend to vote for Trump probably think (and perhaps rightly so) that the urbane press corps has more in common with the people in Clinton’s orbit.
Of course, even less sophisticated campaigns don’t have the same type of wherewithal or resources, so their coverage tends to suffer. There likely were no bountiful off-the-record dinners to tee up coverage of the Jill Stein or Gary Johnson campaigns. The same holds true for activists or those beyond the electoral power structure who can’t hope to court reporters in that manner. They won’t get their voices in the room to the same degree, especially if they aren’t living in a tony section of New York or DC. In turn, a certain weltanschauung is amplified, and reporters only hear from the people they want to hear: those that talk like they do, and offer a window into the inner sanctum of power. With few exceptions, most journalists still sniff at anyone daring to hold multiple positions outside the center-left to center-right consensus. If you’re an emissary from a marginalized group hoping for the ear of the campaign press corps, you’re out of luck.
As Caro understood, the best reporting is done on the margins, away from the siren charms of power and prestige. “It is more difficult to challenge a man’s facts over cocktails than over a conference table,” Caro wrote. “More difficult to flatly give the lie to a statement over a gleaming white tablecloth, filet mignon, and fine wine than it would have been to do so over a hard-polished board-room and legal pads.”