Heaven forbid journalists ask questions!
Cass R. Sunstein emptied his digestive system of a steaming wad of press rancor Wednesday in his Bloomberg View column titled “Why Officials Don’t Tell the Media Everything.” Sunstein — a legal scholar who served as the Obama administration’s regulatory czar for three years and more recently sat on the panel that reviewed U.S. surveillance programs — phrases in his usual genial but condescending fashion his objections to journalism as practiced in Washington.
First, Sunstein chides reporters who are “disturbed” by government officials who stiff-arm them. Then he complains (from his own personal experience) about the four common requests journalists make of government officials. They ask 1) for information about policy decisions before they’re finalized or announced; 2) about internal conversations, including high-level conflicts; 3) to “say something spicy about the president”; and 4) to respond to recent allegations to help journalists determine who is right or telling the truth.
Oh, the effrontery, the chutzpah, the nerve of reporters who ask government officials pesky, premature questions to obtain news! But that’s not how Sunstein sees it, explaining that 1) it is generally not the place of an official to “make the announcement ahead of time”; 2) confidential remarks should remain confidential; 3) sharing sauciness is disloyal; and 4) if nobody in government is wrong or lying, a response will only garner the allegation more attention.
There’s a whiff of monarchial annoyance in Sunstein’s piece. How dare journalists ask government officials about things not yet made public? He seems to be ignoring the obvious fact that government officials reach out to reporters every day of the week to share information not yet made public in an attempt to influence the policy debate and public opinion. So it has been since the earliest days of the republic.
Sunstein opposes such leaky acts, calling them not “honorable” and pointing with a link to one of his previous columns in which he denounced former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for a “dishonorable act” by disclosing private Obama administration communication in his recent book.
Sunstein has it all wrong. The wise bureaucrat happily fields calls from irksome reporters because the wise bureaucrat knows that embedded in a reporter’s questions can be found useful political intelligence. Like a bee collecting pollen from a flower, a reporter asking government officials irritating questions brings direct benefits to the official. The questions routinely contain information the official needs to do his job, not the least being the secrets his underlings and colleagues are keeping from him.
Overclassification, zipped lips, and other Jersey barriers erected inside government to slow the flow of information — both internally and externally — prevent bureaucrats from conducting informed debates and making wise decisions. Perhaps brazen reporters offend Sunstein so much because he was a government short-timer. Had he stayed inside a tad longer, he might have learned the dance and been a more effective bureaucrat.
While I’m charmed by Sunstein’s ode to loyalty, and tickled by his preference that all “disagreements or concerns” inside government should be expressed internally, I’d also like to introduce him to the Nixon administration, the Johnson administration during the Gulf of Tonkin episode, the George W. Bush administration in the months before the invasion of Iraq, and other epochal moments in White House history when disloyalty to the regime would have constituted loyalty to the country. Every day we benefit because a “disloyal” government official speaks to a reporter without first securing authorization.
Sunstein believes all administration officials are “members of a team,” and for them to talk without authorization is “rogue” behavior and “not appropriate.” I wonder if U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who is also Sunstein’s spouse, ever answers the questions that so disturb her husband. She seems to thrive on feeding and nurturing the debate. Cass! Cass! Maybe the call is coming from inside your home!
In a perfectly Sunsteinian world, reporters would sit outside of officials’ offices and publish only from handouts about policy changes. They wouldn’t ask how policy is evolving inside an administration. They’d retreat to their chair outside the respective official’s office and wait for a handout when deliberations have ceased. They would never ask for color or context for their stories.
And in a perfectly Sunsteinian world, reporters would never pose questions to help determine who was right or telling the truth about, say, the decision to invade Iraq. They would throttle their professional desire to unmask half-wits and liars, and sit patiently to await instruction from officials.
The sort of questions that Cass Sunstein would have the press corps ask aren’t worth asking. Sunstein — and other government officials — are within their rights to tell reporters to shove off when they call or button-hole him. The First Amendment isn’t a subpoena (although reporters can always wish). Likewise, if Sunstein thinks the country is best served by mute government officials and docile reporters, well, he’s also welcome to those stupid positions. When he returns to government, I’ll dial his office and discuss it with him.
Sunstein’s latest book is titled Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, which is almost enough to make me subscribe to some conspiracy theories. Send your theories and speculations to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Ask me anything via my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTOS: U.S. President Barack Obama holds his year-end news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House in Washington REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst; Cass Sunstein headshot/ White House