The power-journalism nexus

By Felix Salmon
May 4, 2009

Yvette Kantrow has been combing Tim Geithner’s datebook, from his New York Fed days, not for meetings with bankers but rather for meetings with journalists. And it turns out that there were a lot of them, the vast majority completely off the record. Kantrow concludes:

The Times’ page 1 opus on April 27, co-written by lunchmate Morgenson, faulted Geithner for being too close and clubby with the financiers he was supposedly monitoring. But looking at his schedule, you can just as easily argue that the media was too close and clubby with him. And a club it was.

Most readers of the press I think are unaware of just how much off-the-record schmoozing of journalists goes on at the very highest levels of government. Geithner was by no means exceptional in this respect: if you’re a senior editor at a major news publication, you can expect regular meetings with VIPs up to and including heads of state, substantially all of them off the record.

The journalists are excited and flattered by all this attention, which amounts to capture of key opinion-formers by the very people being covered. (The VIPs wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.) But of course no FOIA request will ever uncover the list of officials invited to lunch with the NYT editorial board, and the NYT itself keeps such information very close to its chest.

There’s a lot of complaining about “anonymice” in the media — people who are quoted but not named. My feeling is that if the war on anonymous sources continues, we’ll just see even more of this kind of thing: regular meetings with journalists which result in no direct quotations or attribution at all. Which would not be much of an improvement.

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Even if we shift more towards journalistic capture, at least dismissing anonymice will move away from journalists using anonymous quotes to express their own views. That’s what blogs are for with their incumbent greater audience skepticism. It will also make it easier to ask ‘cui bono’ if anonymous quotes are used more sparely. Having higher standards for anonymous quoting may even help journalists themselves, if not to get quotes then to have a leg to stand on when they ask why someone has to be anonymous and the context of the leak. That helps to reduce manipulation of the media and can clue journalists in to what the bigger story might be, respectively.

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