It’s an age-old question in journalism: What sort of trade to you make for access?
We see it in relatively mundane situations like the recent Ariel Helwani news, where Helwani — whose full-time gig is with MMA Fighting, and he’s excellent at it — was let go from his part-time gig with FOX, and it’s pretty heavily implied that he, like many an MMA journalist before him, was doing things the UFC did not like.
I’ve also seen it in local news “scoops.” One of my old papers had a bureau in a neighboring town, and they reported truthfully, whether it embarrassed the local government or not. The smaller paper based in that town was much “friendlier.” Guess which paper got the PR releases first?
I wrestled with it when I was breaking news frequently in the saga of Dan Borislow vs. WPS. Borislow didn’t agree with everything I wrote by any means, and he would certainly share his complaints with me. But he trusted me. Looking back, I think I handled things well, and I think I was fair to all parties. But I also didn’t want to be seen as too close to him. Whenever you’re getting inside info, sharp readers are bound to ask what the reporter has done to earn such trust.
Deadspin, the snarky but occasionally informative sports blog, generally operates without access. Some people think that’s better. They’re not affected by the prospect of going into a locker room and facing the athlete they just criticized. I’d argue their perspective is a valuable addition to our media, but it can’t replace the information reporters get from being closer to the action. It’s not either/or. It’s both.
Those are all a hill of beans, in Bogart’s words, in the world at large. But we also see it in situations of grave importance.
Here’s the story bringing this issue to mind today: Revealed: how Associated Press cooperated with the Nazis | World news | The Guardian
I think most people’s initial reaction is horror. “Cooperated with the Nazis” is never a good look. But is there a value in getting information, however tainted it may be, from an otherwise closed world?
And it’s certainly relevant today. AP is one of those rare news organizations that reports from North Korea. No one’s under any illusion that the reporters are on a tight leash.
If you ran AP, would you pull your reporters from Pyongyang? Or would you continue to take the reports for what they are, knowing that other reporters will be able to put it in perspective?