Some people in my lovely town surely think I’m a maniac.
They didn’t get that impression by meeting me. They didn’t get that conversation by seeing me run a soccer team or a chess club, even if I’ve had to be a disciplinarian. They know I strive to be positive as much as I can. (Don’t laugh if you only know me from Twitter, where some people get a kinky thrill out of pushing my buttons, and I’ve finally learned to shut those buttons off.) I even won an award my kids’ elementary school in honor of “her” volunteer service. (Gender stereotypes, man …)
They got that impression if they were outside my Starbucks listening to me shouting into my phone at a PR person who was trying waaaay too hard to spin something. He was insisting a story I was chasing wasn’t a story. He was accusing me of being interested in that story only because it affected my son, which wasn’t true in the least. If you’re measuring how much someone is insulting you, that guy went up to 11.
And yet I still have “access” to that organization. I’ve spoken with that person many more times since then. I’ve been credentialed for events.
So you can see why I bristle at the notion of journalists with “access” being compromised and useless.
I got into this a bit in the last post, in which I reacted to Luke Thomas’ thoughtful take on access journalism in sports. It’s not my best work, frankly, but at least a few people read it and got the gist of whatever I was trying to say.
The debate today starts with an Atlantic piece by Elaina Plott defending the notion of humanizing presidents by being close to them:
A lot of folks like to sneer at so-called access journalism, as though the only way to convince subjects to talk is by promising them a puff piece (how ridiculous this is should go, I hope, without saying). But access is often the best—sometimes even the only—way to dimensionalize subjects, to gain intimate knowledge of the ordinary habits and hurts and hang-ups that inform their behavior in extraordinary circumstances. And in politics, it is an avenue through which readers can decide whether the person behind the policies is worthy of empathy and respect.
The response from Splinter News’ Libby Watson is … do we still say “snarky”? Because it is.
Access journalism isn’t just promising a subject a puff piece in return for access. It can be much more subtle than that. If you’re really good at it, your subjects won’t even have to ask if your piece will be gentle with them because they know it will. Access journalism, as Leah Finnegan wrote in the Outline, is also “not only believing people in power, but protecting their identities even when they are wrong or lying”; it’s not even asking the question because you know it might disrupt future coverage; it’s going to off-the-record parties with sources, chumming it up, and posting your selfies with them on Instagram.
Sure, some people do that. To go back to the sports discussion, it’s a big issue in MMA and women’s soccer, where the organizations are either control freaks (UFC) or can’t be picky about who gets credentials (NWSL).
But the implication here is that everyone on the “inside” is compromised. The logicians would call this a hasty generalization.
I would doubt, for example, that Jim Acosta will be posting selfies with any White House officials any time soon …
The White House yanked Acosta’s credentials. CNN sued. The court backed Acosta.
Another issue here from Watson’s piece:
I’m happy for a piece to include a charming anecdote about Barack Obama’s Spotify playlists if the journalist also asks him tough questions about drone strikes and climate change; funny how that so rarely happens in the same piece, isn’t it?
Why in the world would it happen in the same piece? Is that the only piece that news organization will ever write about Obama?
The problem here is the idea that one perspective is inherently valuable while another is inherently useless. A perspective is only useless if it’s fundamentally dishonest, like anything emanating from the Trump administration and maybe 90% of what comes from Fox “News.” (Bless you, Shepard Smith.)
Let’s raise a hypothetical. Suppose you’re the editor of The New York Times, and you have an opportunity to put a correspondent in Pyongyang. You know that correspondent is going to have to tread a fine line. She/he can’t be as bold as Acosta was with Trump or as defensive as I was with that PR rep.
A. Decline the opportunity?
B. Accept it, realizing that you’re going to need to balance that reporting with analysis from outside North Korea?
I vote B. It’s going to be difficult. North Korea might eventually kick that person out of the country because of something another Post writer wrote. But it’s worth a shot.
Watson isn’t the only writer in her media group to sneer at “access journalism.” That’s the stance of Deadspin, the snarkiest of sports blogs and a corporate sibling of Splinter News. A couple of comments on Watson’s piece tout the superiority of Deadspin because it does not seek access to sports. The tagline is “Sports News Without Access, Favor, or Discretion.”
But what about Humanization?
Deadspin sometimes sheds light on important issues. It’s also entertaining, in the same vein as the Keith Olbermann/Dan Patrick glory days on SportsCenter. I don’t think I’ve seen a headline that tops “Farting Controversy Clouds Grand Slam Of Darts Quarterfinal.”
But Deadspin also forgets, all too often, that the athletes upon which it snarks are human beings. (Granted, they tend not to see the humanity of anyone. It’s one thing to snark on Duke grads like me. It’s another to make fun of a damn toddler.)
There’s value in Deadspin’s view from the couch. But there’s also value in speaking with an athlete and seeing the sweat and blood.
And that’s true of politics as well. A good news organization will be both inside and outside. It might be “inside” in several different places — American journalism has suffered with the closing of so many foreign bureaus. We barely have voices from anywhere in America outside the coasts — Watson is based in D.C., and I’ve long fretted that the Post treats everything south and west of the Potomac as a giant anthropology experiment. (Or maybe I’m still fretting over the column in which the Post columnist ventured all the way out on the Orange Line to see for himself the hinterland of Vienna.)
Those perspectives won’t always be predictable. An “outside” journalist may think a politician or an athlete is doing pretty well. An “inside” journalist might have insight on how badly that person is screwing up. Or vice versa.
Journalism is under siege. It has been for a long time, and the economic trends of the past 15 years have left it less powerful to fight back. Should we really be talking about silencing any valuable perspective at this point?