Washington Post and transparency: total strangers

Media outlets lose credibility when they demand accountability from others while refusing to provide it themselves

Published July 9, 2010 11:10AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Earlier this week, I noted -- with multiple illustrative examples -- how media outlets crusade for the virtues of transparency while frequently exempting themselves.  Establishment news organizations are, ironically, among the most opaque institutions.   Recall how most television news outlets refused to provide anything but the most cursory comments in response to David Barstow's inquiries about the fact that they had employed numerous "military analysts" with multiple, undisclosed conflicts of interests and hidden participation in a Pentagon propaganda program, and to this date, have simply refused to tell their viewers about those revelations, let alone account for what they did.

The Washington Post has helpfully illustrated this dynamic with another glaring example.  As I've written several times, one reason the case of accused WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning is so mystifying is because journalists such as Wired's Kevin Poulsen obtained and selectively quoted from, but stubbornly refuse to disclose, the unedited chat logs between Manning and Adrian Lamo, in which Manning allegedly confessed to these leaks.  In addition to Wired, it seems clear that The Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima -- judging by this June 10 article she wrote -- also has some or all of those logs, and I thus wrote her this email on Tuesday:

Hi Ellen - I'm writing a piece on media transparency and original source material and wanted to ask about your June 10 article on Bradley Manning:  did you obtain the full chat logs between Manning and Adrian Lamo from which you quoted?  If so, did you consider publishing them in full, or at least with minor redactions to protect privacy and the like, rather than merely selecting bits and pieces to quote? Now that Manning has been charged, would you consider publishing those logs in order to allow your readers access to read them?

Thanks - Glenn Greenwald

Here's the reply I received yesterday from Kris Coratti, Director of Communications for the Post:

Hi Glenn, I was passed along your e-mail.  Thank you for your question -- we don't discuss the details of our newsgathering.

Thank you again,

Kris Coratti

Coratti sounds like a CIA spokesperson trained by Dick Cheney.  Apparently, the Post believes it should be completely shielded from accountability and has no obligation to answer any questions about how it reports or what information it conceals from the public.  From now on, every institution ever questioned about anything by The Post should answer the same way:  we don't discuss the details of our internal operations or decision-making.  It's just bizarre to hear a newspaper, of all things, adopt the corporatized language of imperious, reflexive secrecy.  The fact that Nakashima felt compelled -- or perhaps is compelled -- to turn my innocuous inquiries over to corporate communications officials reflects how these newspapers are indistinguishable in mentality and behavior from any other large corporations which seek to hide rather than disclose what they do.  This is exactly the type of response one would receive from, say, BP or large telecoms about their surveillance cooperation with the Government.

I'm amazed that journalists wonder why leading media institutions are held in such low esteem.  How else would a rational person view a media outlet which constantly demands transparency and accountability from others yet -- using heavy-handed Cheneyite decrees -- explicitly declares that it will not respond to any inquiries about what it chooses to disclose and conceal?  And the Post's posture is hardly aberrational.  As NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen documented, newspapers such as the NYT and The Post have long refused to account for their conduct or provide any transparency.  Writing about the NYT's institutional refusal to address questions concerning their horrendous reporting on the Wen Ho Lee case (until public pressure became so intense they were finally forced to), Rosen wrote:

When The New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis told The Boston Globe, "the assessment of our reporting speaks for itself," she was saying:  Sorry, we are not going to clarify anything about our clarification. In other press accounts, Times people were routinely unavailable or unwilling to comment.  The normal stoicism the paper shows when under attack, or, for some, its arrogant silence, returned the day after an extraordinary collapse.

Thus, reporter Jeff Gerth to Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post: "I don’t talk about the Times' business, but as a reporter I'm glad that other people talk about theirs."

Such an explicit, unapologetic embrace of this level of hypocrisy -- we demand transparency and accountability from others but categorically refuse to provide any ourselves -- is obviously inconsistent with maintaining even minimal levels of credibility with the public. 

As Rosen notes, the problem for these media outlets  -- a substantial reason they're failing -- is that the Internet has fostered alternatives to their heavy-handed methods, exposing their deficiencies in a way that was previously impossible.  Beyond their explicit refusal to comment on their journalism -- something that would be inconceivable to most new, online journalists -- consider the issue I raised with the Post of disclosing primary source materials.  If I obtained a newsworthy chat log that I intended to write about, it would literally never occur to me to write about it without publishing the entire log.  Why would I hold it in my hands, selectively quote from it, but not post it online so that my readers could see what I see?  If I believed there were valid reasons for concealing parts of it (because I agreed to do so as a condition for obtaining it, because parts of it might be privacy-invasive without any public interest, etc.), I would withhold the absolute minimum that I could and explain very clearly and in detail why I was doing so. 

That's just basic transparency and respect for one's readers:  why shouldn't readers have the same opportunity as the journalist to review those original documents if they want to, and decide for themselves what's relevant and not?  That's why, for instance, when I wrote about the WikiLeaks/Manning story, I published the full telephone interview I did with Lamo and the full email exchange I had with Poulsen:  why should readers only see what the journalist picks and chooses for them to see?  Particularly with the lack of space constraints which the Internet enables, what journalistic justification is there for writing about documents while concealing the original source material from one's readers?  As The New York Times' Noam Cohen wrote in discussing how the reporting of the Manning case was different because it occurred primarily in online venues:

Mr. Greenwald analyzed the accusations and, as is his style, showed all his work -- including e-mail correspondence with Mr. Poulsen and a telephone interview with Mr. Lamo.

Why shouldn't the Post do the same?  As Julian Sanchez wrote about open source material:  "why isn't it just standard practice to make the source material for an article available online, linked from the article itself?"

The Post is obviously still clinging to this old, obsolete model where its readers are its captives:   passive recipients of information, relying -- by necessity -- on the unilateral, unchecked discretion of Post executives, editors and reporters about which information should be concealed and which should be disclosed.  But the Internet has obliterated the sole justification for that model -- space constraints -- and I know personally that I'm rarely willing to read an article about, say, a new poll if it's unaccompanied by the actual polling data, or an article about a court ruling or document if there is no link to the document itself, etc.  Yet here is the Post not only concealing the source material, but categorically refusing to account for what it is concealing and why.  With pervasive secrecy and willful unresponsiveness like that, is it really hard to understand why outlets such as the Post are hemorrhaging credibility?


UPDATE:  On an unrelated note:  Writing at Alternet, Charles Davis examines neocon smears of the type directed at me yesterday by The New Ledger.  One point he highlights particularly resonated for me:  these smear attacks are so trite, so formulaic and predictable, so inconsequential and substance-free, so 2003, that it's basically impossible to get yourself to care enough even to respond ("anti-American, pro-terrorist, self-hating Jewish liberal").  As I noted in the update to yesterday's post, the only response I could really muster was a sense of vindication that I was doing the right thing if it was provoking that kind of reaction from those kinds of neocons.  Davis' whole article is worth reading.


UPDATE II:  Related to all of this:  see this Digby post from today on the hilariously absurd discrepancy between (a) how Beltway media figures perceive of themselves and (b) reality.  As to why these battles with media outlets are important, see this (profane) 3-minute George Carlin clip which Digby posted earlier in the week, as it summarizes (albeit in a crude and somewhat overly-simplified fashion) the essence of most things political.  Of America's elite, Carlin says:  "I'll tell you what they don't want -- a population of citizens capable of critical thinking . . . . that doesn't help them.  That's against their interests":

And to see how prescient Carlin was in the bit about Social Security, see these two reports -- one from TPM's Brian Beutler and one from Jon Walker -- on the emerging bipartisan consensus over Social Security and similar social programs.

By Glenn Greenwald

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