Opinion

Jack Shafer

Heaven forbid journalists ask questions!

Jack Shafer
May 8, 2014 22:02 UTC

 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.

Free the Gannett 25!

Jack Shafer
Mar 27, 2012 21:59 UTC

Last week, the hall monitors who run Gannett’s 11 newspapers in Wisconsin brought the mean end of the ruler down on the wrists of 25 journalists for signing petitions to recall Governor Scott Walker.

Kevin Corrado, publisher of the chain’s Green Bay Press-Gazette, spoke the company line in a Mar. 24 column in which he stated that signing the petition constituted a “breach of Gannett’s principles of ethical conduct.” Promising “disciplinary measures” and additional “ethics training” for the signatories, Corrado continued:

A number of the journalists told their editors that they did not consider signing the petition a political act. They equated it to casting a ballot in an election. But we do not make that distinction.

  •