A Leaky Post Newsroom

The Post’s internal critiques are proving to be a real opportunity for internal discussion — and the critiques in the wake of the Bob Woodward controversy of this week are no exception.

Now in the wake of more revelations and debates over leaked information, the internal message boards are humming with a debate over, well, leaks from the message boards.

Today they’re debating the propriety of the critiques, given that the more interesting ones often end up leaking outside the newsroom–and being posted on blogs, running in Washingtonian magazine, and even–horror of horrors–being quoted by Howard Kurtz in the paper itself.

“I hardly see any point in having critiques and comments if they are to be publicized outside the paper. How can we write candidly when candor merely invites violations of confidentiality? Many readers say they distrust us. Well, now I find myself wondering if we can trust each other,” the Post’s Jonathan Yardley writes.

Full debate after the jump.

Charles Babington: I feel like we’re ignoring the 800-pound elephant on our front page: Bob Woodward. Every day, scores of Post reporters press, cajole, badger, demand, implore people to tell us things they might not want to. When they demur, we try to convince them they should talk to the Washington Post even if they talk to no one else. Today we report that our assistant managing editor, and surely our most famous staffer, “declined to elaborate on the statement he released to The Post late yesterday afternoon and publicly last night. He would not answer any questions, including those not governed by his confidentiality agreement with sources.” I admire the hell out of Bob, but this looks awful.

Charles Lane: Babington, I second that emotion. If I could interview Bob, my question would be: I teach an ethics in journalism course at Georgetown U. every Thursday. How should I explain all of this to the class when, inevitably, they ask about it tomorrow night?

Robert E. Pierre: Chuck is right. It does look awful and it impacts on the credibility that each of us individually, and collectively, have as we make our case to people about why they should trust us. I certainly understand that national security and the presidency and the Supreme Court are murky topics that sometimes will require us to make deals with people to get information. But I think this whole affair of journalists and politicians using anonymity to trade information and then cast themselves as protectors of the common good stinks. These tradeoffs that we make–arguably to tell what we believe are revelatory stories–are often well beyond the understanding of our readers who go about their lives in worlds in which comments, good and bad, are attached to the names of real people they can go back and question. They can decide a person’s credibility for themselves, examine their motives and make an informed decision. When we do that for them, and promise that we will tell them as much as we know, we must, absolutely must, not waiver from that promise. When we do, we all pay the price, not just those people whose names are splashed in the headlines.

Jonathan Yardley: To the matter rightly raised by Chuck Babington: This is the logical and perhaps inevitable outcome when an institution permits an individual to become larger than the institution itself. However able and accomplished the individual — and I agree that Woodward is both — the institution pays the cost when he or she is permitted to operate within its purview yet under a different set of rules. There are a few others on the paper about whom the same could be said. Perhaps the current embarrassment (for embarrassment it most certainly is) will provide the occasion for re-examining the star system and its attendant risks. This is a big, influential newspaper, one of perhaps the half-dozen best in the world, but it will never be fully mature until it understands that the institution’s interests take priority over any employee’s, and until it puts that understanding into practice. Judy Miller was granted star status, and look what happened to her — and to the Times.

Valerie Strauss: Couldn’t have said the above any better, so I won’t try. Query: When did Bob Woodward tell Len Downie about this, and was it before or after Bart Gellman’s 10/30 reconstruction of the Libby case?

Jonathan Yardley: The comment of mine two paragraphs above has been leaked, presumably by someone in the newsroom, to the New York Times. Katharine Seelye called me an hour ago pressing for further comment. I declined, stressing that this is a confidential internal critique written solely for the news staff of TWP and refusing to authorize her to quote from it. She called back half an hour later to say that her editor had told her to go ahead and quote from the comment anyway. I told her I expected her to make plain that this is a confidential internal document and that she is quoting from it over the objections of the person who wrote it. She said she would. We’ll see.

I hardly see any point in having critiques and comments if they are to be publicized outside the paper. How can we write candidly when candor merely invites violations of confidentiality? Many readers say they distrust us. Well, now I find myself wondering if we can trust each other.

Andy Mosher: That low hum we all hear is James Madison spinning in his grave.

Jeff Leen: Before we draw and quarter Woodward for making a mistake that he has apologized for, let’s take a moment to remember what the man has meant to this institution. Bob would be the first to tell you that he is not bigger than this institution, and I do not think it is fair to claim that he operates off the reservation or by his own set of journalistic rules that do not comport with ours. This is no time to trot out the Judy Miller comparisons. I worked with him on the stories he wrote that won this paper the Pulitzer for national reporting after 9/11. I, for one, would not question his methods. Bob does the hard work and the digging and when he makes a promise to a source, he keeps it, as all of us should. He didn’t produce a line of coverage that was flat-out wrong. He didn’t mislead his editors, he simply didn’t tell them something he should have. That is serious, I grant you. But understandable under the circumstances. He chose not to participate in a story that would have had the end result of unmasking his sources. Now, maybe you make your living with anonymous sources or maybe you don’t, but if you do, you know one thing, and that is that you do not reveal your sources when the heat is on or under any other circumstance–when it is politically expedient or when it is economically expedient or when it is journalistically expedient or when it is legally expedient. If your source is the devil, you keep his confidence. Anonymous sources have to be used carefully. They have to be checked and triangulated and buttressed with documents and other sources. Bob Woodward is the most careful person I know in the use of unnamed sources. Over his more than 30-year career there is no Wen Ho Lee or WMD or anything else like that. The man made a mistake. But he has given this institution far more than he has taken from it.

Peter Baker: Re: Jeff Leen’s comment, hear hear. Everyone makes mistakes and pays the price. But Bob has been an exceptionally generous colleague and model of integrity for longer than any of us posting today have been at the paper. He’s partly responsible for the fact that we have such a special place to practice our craft in the first place. Let the nattering nabobs on the outside have their pound of flesh. But Bob has more than earned our understanding, forgiveness, support and loyalty.

Glenn Kessler: I think it is outrageous that someone gave Yardley’s comments to the New York Times. If this person had the courage of their convictions, he/she would have allowed themselves to be quoted on the record to The Times (why hide behind Yardley’s private comments if you believe them to be correct?) and he/she should have no qualms about revealing themselves as the source.

I view this chatboard as the written equivalent of conversations around the water cooler. How many people would we quote thirdhand in the newspaper unless we got those quotes confirmed from the source? Granted, in this case, the comments were written, which allowed the Times to decide they had enough confirmation to use the comments even though Yardley refused to talk about them. But that fact gives every one of us an even greater obligation to keep this chatter among ourselves.

Obviously, we all try to report on what was said behind closed doors. But the extensive use of written electronic communication has created a new world. The Times was very upset when the Post once quoted from a private email from Judy Miller to one of her colleagues. A WSJ reporter in Iraq once got in huge trouble when one of her emails was shared to the world.

This new world requires all of us to be careful about how we use the electronic information we read or receive. And if you are determined to share private thoughts and comments you have learned by reading this chatboard, you should do it on the record.

Sara Goo: I hardly find it surprising that comments from this forum would get leaked to the Times or any other news organization. Any issue of Washingtonian magazine shows that journalists leak to other journalists when it comes to the in-love-with-ourselves gossip of the media reporting on the media.

After all, a few weeks ago I found my own comments from this forum quoted in a Washington Post story about this forum.

Debbi Wilgoren: Sara rasises an important point. I had assumed that Howie Kurtz checked with the people whose comments he quoted in his article last month, before using what they said. But whether he did or not, I find it troubling that he wrote a piece on this forum and that, this morning, he referred to the comments posted yesterday as part of his Woodward story. Why am I troubled? Because Howie’s access to this forum is as a participant, just like all of us. Not as a reporter pursuing a story. I’m a real fan of the dialogue unfolding in this space, and I think that its quality will be jeopardized if participants believe that a) their comments may be passed on to outside journalists without their permission or b) our own outstanding media critic may quote from the critiques without permission, or may characterize the dialogue in general terms in his report.

Andy Mosher Brevity may be the soul of wit, or however that goes, but it’s also ambiguous. So lemme expand on my cryptic quip about Jemmie Madison: It wasn’t a swipe at Woodward — far from it. I endorse everything Jeff and Peter said about him. He’s one of a kind, and we’re lucky to have had him on our team for more than 30 years. I was merely waxing ironic about how this whole tug of war about the journalistic freedom was call confidentiality has reached the ridiculous point where officials who decide whether or not to invade a nation can work the game in their favor, but God forbid one of us should say something in our on-line cafeteria and expect it to stay in the building. I don’t agree with Mr. Yardley, but I never thought his or anyone’s comment was fair game for cut-and-paste journalism. And since what’s said in the forum is no long just among us, I have nothing further to post here. Ever. See ya.

Michael Tunison: Though this would be the most distressing incident, it’s hardly the first time snatches of the critique have been leaked to outside sources. I’ve seen a number of postings on blogs of stuff discussed in this forum.

Marie Arana: Just for the record: When I made my comments about what troubled me about the newsroom in my critique of Sept. 29, I read about them later in Howie’s column. In China. A WSJ reporter gave me the heads up. I had no warning whatsoever and Howie made no attempt to clear my comments for publication.

Jonathan Krim: Alas, leakage of newsroom critique boards, internal memos, etc.is likely a fact of life. Caveat emptor, though it would be a shame if debate here is stifled as a result. Back to the matter at hand: Not discussed directly in this forum, but effectively used by others to bludgeon us this morning, was the question of a reporter “exempting” himself from the Plame story and then appearing on TV as a pundit — and washington post representative — trashing the fitzgerald probe as much ado about gossip.

Perhaps it’s time for some policy clarification in this area.