Making Sausage: A Reporter's Emails
Mike DeBonis, the Loose Lips columnist at the Washington City Paper, was frank with his readers about why he sought and published the juiciest emails traded by Washington Post city hall reporter David Nakamura and Mayor Adrian Fenty's communications director, Carrie Brooks:
He wanted a holy cow story, of course, and he wanted also "to soothe the bruised reporter egos of LL [Loose Lips] and his reporter colleagues," whom Nakamura has scooped again and again on stories about Mayor Fenty.
So DeBonis filed a Freedom of Information act request with the D.C. government and got himself a big pile of emails, some of which make Nakamura look like exactly what he is: A beat reporter working his sources, making nice, playing tough, exchanging information, winning cooperation.
Read the emails raw, and some may seem embarrassing to this newspaper. Here's the reporter commiserating with the mayor's spokesman about the picky questions civic gadfly Dorothy Brizill poses at mayoral news conferences (""Fenty is really putting [Brizill] in her place....priceless!") And here's the reporter boasting that he somehow got a Post editorial writer not to write about what a bad choice the mayor was making in picking the new schools superintendent ("jo-ann armao was about to crush you guys for picking [Rudy] crew. i called off the attack...")
As the City Paper writes it, Nakamura may appear to be in cahoots with the mayor's office in managing the news. But what we're really seeing here is a much more interesting and productive game in which reporter and source try to parlay their best asset--information--into something that will win them an advantage.
The mayor's office wants their story out in the most favorable light possible. The reporter wants a scoop--in this case, the story about whom Fenty was picking as the new schools chief. So Nakamura and Brooks negotiate over when and where the reporter might be given the story. There's back and forth between the Post and Brooks over who can comment on the new appointee, Michelle Rhee. The city, trying to preserve the secrecy of its choice, asks the newspaper to agree to call for comment only the source the District provides, New York City schools boss Joel Klein.
Is that wrong? If the paper can get a story only by promising not to spread word about Rhee around town pre-publication, that creates a problem. How can the newspaper effectively give readers a full picture of the new appointee unless it is free to call up lots of people who know and have worked with her? But the decision in this case was made, as it often is, to report the story in stages. That's the beauty of a daily paper: You can get the story of the appointment one day, then come back the next day and flesh it out--who is this person, why was she picked, what problems and achievements lie in her past?
I asked Tom Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, whether the City Paper was right to do this story: "Clever of the City Paper to go to a public information request about a competitor's reporting
techniques," he replies, "but it should take care -- what's good for the goose is good for the gander."
But did Nakamura do anything ethically troubling? "The situation basically hits me as an aggressive and competitive beat reporter doing his job," Kunkel says. "As you know, the making of the sausage is not always pretty, and most beat reporters at one time or another can be viewed as 'sucking up' to sources. But the job, of course, is to get the story -- and, ideally, to get it exclusively for your news outlet. In my experience, alienating news sources is generally a bad way to go about getting information, so some 'sucking up' -- let's call it 'cultivation' -- is necessary. I'm sure Nakamura would prefer not to have his emails made public, but they don't strike me as out of bounds or inappropriate."
Indeed, Nakamura wasn't overjoyed to see his work process published in a free weekly. But he tells me that although he didn't relish seeing his emails in print, "The Post and its methods are fair game for criticism." He had learned some time back that another publication had sought the email records from the city, and since then, Nakamura says, he "started to change my reporting techniques, though not because I felt they were inappropriate, but rather to protect my sources from being outed in the future by another frustrated competitor."
In a famous New Yorker essay many years ago, Janet Malcolm derided reporting as a "con game," a tangle of tricks in which journalists try to maneuver sources into saying things that are not in their interest to say publicly. But Malcolm's portrait of the craft of reporting was simplistic and reductive--while there are certainly cases in which reporters try to elicit information that a source would be foolish or self-destructive to reveal, far more stories involve demonstrating to sources that divulging the truth will help them, or at least lead toward some larger good.
And in the case of the relationships between reporters and official government sources, the power lies very much in the hands of the public officials, and the news person's task is to triangulate information to make it impossible for the official to withhold the facts.
In this case, Nakamura says he routinely sends Brooks "several emails a day on average.... I also talk to her several times a day and visit her office more than once a week, even when she doesn't want me there (she can tell you how many times she's looked up from her desk to see me waving at her to come get me past security so I can bug her about a story). I have a different relationship with each of my sources; my goal is to get information from them. As such, I also recognize that someone like Carrie Brooks, the communications director, needs information from me to do her job. I try to be fair and honest with my sources, with the goal of developing trust so that I can get access and information for the readers."
Although the City Paper wrote the story fairly straight, the nature of DeBonis's report is to imply that there was something less than honorable about how Nakamura did his reporting. But I couldn't find reporters or editors who saw anything wrong with Nakamura's tactics. The only point in the Loose Lips column that raised eyebrows in the newsroom was the bit in which the reporter appears to be playing a role in a decision of an editorial writer--clearly a no-no in newsrooms where the news and editorial (opinion) pages are kept rigorously apart.
"So much for that vaunted news-editorial firewall," DeBonis writes.
But Nakamura, editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao and the Post's top editor for local news, Bob McCartney, all told City Paper that no such breach occurred. As McCartney said, there's no problem with a news reporter and an editorial writer consulting with one another over a matter of fact. If Nakamura simply told an editorial writer that the candidate who once appeared to be getting the schools job no longer was in the running, there's no crossing of the line, but merely a collegial assist on a question of fact.
So why did DeBonis write the piece? Does he really believe the Post's reporter has come upon his many scoops in the first year of the Fenty administration by cutting improper deals with the mayor's office?
He says not. "There's still a lot of people sore about the fact that the Post knew about Michelle Rhee before a lot of people who were supposed to be a part of the process," DeBonis tells me in an email. "And, sure, other reporters aren't happy when there's such a heavy-handed attempt to favor one outlet over another."
So did he act on pure jealousy that Nakamura and the Post are getting stories that other news organizations aren't? No, DeBonis says, "some of the e-mails I thought did raise legitimate questions that, if nothing else, would interest certain of the press corps." But neither in his story nor in his response to me did DeBonis point to any action by Nakamura that he would deem unethical or improper.
The fact is that the City Paper columnist, like any of us who do this stuff for a living, might have done any and all of what Nakamura did.
"I did think about this from a karmic point of view," DeBonis says. "After all, I of course have folks I talk to in the government that I'm friendly with. Maybe not to the extent that Dave and Carrie are friendly, but pretty darn friendly."
Any lessons learned here? Yes, you will see more phone calls and fewer emails when reporters get into negotiations with press officers. "I do tend to keep in mind that when I send an e-mail to a government computer that it isn't necessarily private," DeBonis says. "So I tend to have any sensitive conversations on the phone or through private e-mail addresses. Thing about the mayor's office is that so much business is done by e-mail/Blackberry that you can't help but have FOIA-discoverable paper trails for these things."
Will this dry up Nakamura's flow of scoops? Don't bet on that. His best stories often come from sources entirely independent of the mayor's office, and he's been anything but a homer (a reporter who writes favorably about the beat they cover.) He has written tough stories such as one about Fenty's haughty, dismissive manner, that other news outlets have had to follow.
"I get scoops from many different places," Nakamura says, and while I don't pretend to know his sources, I can certainly verify that that's how this biz works--write a story one day that seems to make one side in a dispute look good and you will receive a lovely document dump the next day from the other side. The good reporter works all sides of the story, and as the City Paper emails show, Nakamura works them well.
By Marc Fisher |
March 12, 2008; 8:09 AM ET
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