Gawker’s fascinating, FOIA-enabled look at how reporters and politicos negotiate for access and coverage continues today with a series of exchanges between Hillary Clinton aide Philippe Reines and journalist Marc Ambinder.
The emails show Ambinder, then contributing editor at The Atlantic, agreeing to portray Clinton’s 2009 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in a particular light in exchange for early access to a transcript of the remarks Clinton was set to deliver. As J.K. Trotter demonstrates, Ambinder delivered on the conditions set by Reines, which included the use of “muscular” as a descriptor and an inventory of the front row of guests. The final condition, as Reines outlined in his email: “You don’t say you were blackmailed!”
Ambinder is hardly the only journalist, in this, as Trotter puts it, “notable sausage-making exchange between Reines and a prominent reporter.” He suspects Politico’s Mike Allen was privy to a similar deal, pointing to Allen’s use of “muscular” and description of the seating arrangements in his Politico piece, but Gawker currently has no email exchange as confirmation.
It does however, have an email conversation between Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin, who at the time was at Time, discussing a possible opportunity for Reines to exist as a character in the movie version of Game Change, which Halperin co-wrote with John Heilemann.
Other reporters whose emails, some innocuous, some less so, Trotter highlights include Greta van Susteren, David Kirkpatrick, Anne Kornblut and Kimberly Dozier.
Ambinder owns up to his mistakes, responding to Trotter initially over email and then by phone, saying:
It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable today. And when I look at that email record, it is a reminder to me of why I moved away from all that. The Atlantic, to their credit, never pushed me to do that, to turn into a scoop factory. In the fullness of time, any journalist or writer who is confronted by the prospect, or gets in the situation where their journalism begins to feel transactional, should listen to their gut feeling and push away from that.
Being scrupulous at all times will not help you get all the scoops, but it will help you sleep at night. At no point at The Atlantic did I ever feel the pressure to make transactional journalism the norm.
Taken individually, you may be able to muster up a bit of schadenfreude over these emails, if that’s what you’re looking to do, but in totality, they serve as a growing dossier of evidence that something is very wrong in the state of political journalism.
That’s not a new concept, but as Ambinder’s response shows, it’s hard to remain committed to even your own journalistic ideals when you’re in the middle of it, lured by larger concepts (access, scoops, et. al.) that often operate as foundational principal instead of as ideas that must be examined.
What, after all, is gained by writing about a speech before it happens, rather than after? Much less than what was lost.