Heaven forbid journalists ask questions!

By Jack Shafer
May 8, 2014

 newsconference

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.

sunsteinSunstein 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

8 comments

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The core issue in USA media is described here
“In a perfectly Sunsteinian world, reporters would sit outside of officials’ offices and publish only from handouts about policy changes.”

OF course “Reporters” would do such, but “Journalists” would not, simply put we needed “Journalists” on Tonkin, Iraq, etc, but got reporters whom is they played the game correctly got “Embedded” so they could again, “play the game correctly”. Rather proved this when as a Journalist he went to the troops and front lines to find reality. He would have been tossed from Iraq for truths

Posted by chuck2 | Report as abusive

Journalist have become bloggers or employees.

Investigative reporters or journalist are gone completely.
I used to watch the Sunday morning political shows and 60 minutes. I don’t bother anymore as they just rehash the same headlines with the same material.
I really miss Tim Russert. The last of his breed.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

No one remembers the Administration’s first press conference. I do. The press was cheering. The news died.

Posted by my2sons | Report as abusive

No one remembers the Administration’s first press conference. I do. The press was cheering. The news died.

Posted by my2sons | Report as abusive

No one remembers the Administration’s first press conference. I do. The press was cheering. The news had died.

Posted by my2sons | Report as abusive

Should anyone question that “News Media” (of all varieties) is not longer much more then entertainment or political theater, I have only one question to ask

If ahead of time, you know who the “Guest” is, or who is “interviewed” which also applies to www/print, you know what will be said, claimed, who will be attacked, and mostly mindless questions will be responded to with like answers. Want to fix that and create reality. Interviewers, hosts, etc would be given cut off switch for “guest” and warn them once to respond to questions, or mic shut off. Other interviews for print etc, interviewer has option to get up and walk out if REASONABLE question gettin gonly pary line, predictable (Interviewer might have list of such, show to “Guest” and warm them of nonsense response or attacks not in relation to questions.

Until then nearly all shows/reports etc guests, are way to predictable,and only verify most “news” now part of entertainment division.

Posted by chuck2 | Report as abusive

Oh, so you guys ask questions for the sake of “news”? I had no idea. I thought it was for the sake of selling advertising. Are you guys non-profit these days? Please… The ‘news’ hasn’t been actual news, for a very long time now. It mainly consists of people looking to find content, that they know the public might actually pay attention to, for the benefit of ratings, or… it consists of some reporter who has an agenda, skewing information by telling the story the way they see it, in the hope of helping their cause. If the news was actually about news… The media wouldn’t still be talking about a demented old man, making some idiotic comments to his Hollywood gold digger girlfriend. Unfortunately, most of the public hasn’t figured out that you guys are mostly just a bunch of vampires, feeding off the doom and gloom of society.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

So what!You agree-anyway-that better journalism comes out of Sunsteinian worlds for instance- Nixon’s enema.

Posted by ex-fungi | Report as abusive