Well this is really too much.
According to The Upshot, White House reporters who attended an off the record lunch Thursday with President Obama aren’t even saying whether they attended.
I asked a couple of my colleagues at the White House whether they knew of anyone who dined with the Big Guy, and they did not.
Failing to disclose something like this violates whatever codes of conduct remain in journalism. We devote our lives to finding out what’s really going on in the world, and so we have an obligation not to stonewall unnecessarily when we are asked what we’re up to.
I say “unnecessarily” because of course reporters can’t divulge everything, such as sources, for example.
And no, these reporters’ names won’t appear on any visitors’ logs, because they have White House passes. They are not just being cleared into the White House for a meeting with the president.
If the reporters are just being coy, that’s bad. If they actually agreed to some kind of White House demand that they not even say they were there in return for sandwiches with POTUS, that’s really egregious.
One of the problems in journalism, and one of the reasons it is currently imperiled, is that there ARE NO CODES OF CONDUCT. Really, you don’t need training, you don’t need to go to school, you don’t need to pass an exam. You just need to be able to type. It’s always been this way, which is one reason why today EVERYBODY is doing journalism.
Really, you need more qualifications to become a palm reader. Dog groomers need some kind of certificate before they can touch your pet.
So nobody is going to be disbarred from journalism for this. But they should be ashamed.
I fully support the idea of the White House allowing a dozen journalists to attend an off the record lunch with Obama, even if White House Dossier is by now the last publication on the list of potential invitees.
There are clear downsides, since the gathering is a transparent attempt by Obama aides to curry favor with reporters and avoid bad stories. But overall, it’s very important for beat reporters to get to know their subject as well as possible – to understand his thinking, his approach, and his disposition at the moment. Nothing beats a private moment for this.
The New York Times refused to attend, and I understand the principle involved and actually admire them for having principles in the first place. They think the president should talk more on the record, that it’s wrong as journalists to keep things hidden.
But I believe that while the words spoken are off the record, the conversation will lead to stories. Things that are discussed spark ideas for related stories and create the background knowledge that informs the stories you write. Inevitably such a session, while off the record, leads to more and better information for the public.
As long as we don’t get co-opted. And some of us, to varying degrees, do.
I once had a landlord who was close to Lyndon Johnson. He actually admitted that he married one of Lyndon Johnson’s aides at the president’s request because for whatever reason it would get her to resign. I was startled.
He said to me, “Keith, when the president of the United States is crying real tears on your shoulder, and asking you to do something, YOU try saying ‘no.’
He got the full “Johnson Treatment.”
So we have to be able to go into the Oval Office today, have lunch with the president, and write a piece tomorrow revealing some awful thing he is doing. It ain’t easy. And if you consider the visit such a privilege that you won’t even admit you were there, it’s not likely you’ll succeed.