Listen to this segment of the NPR program “Here and Now” featuring two political reporters, Robert Draper and Peter Nicholas. Draper is fairly interesting, rather like his NY Times Magazine article on the McCain campaign. (I really wish NPR would drop the Real Audio standard posthaste. Why are they stuck on it?)
Nicholas was embarassing to listen to. He’s never really been on my radar before, so I don’t have a sense of what his published reportage is like. I have a bad feeling that he may be telling you more about many reporters on the campaign beat than he meant to, though. This isn’t the first time this year that we’ve heard the inside story about how political reporters spin stories based in part on whether they feel like the candidate is their pal and whether the perks on the bus or plane are sufficient.
Nicholas complains that Obama never really opened up personally to him or other reporters, that they didn’t get a good sense of his inner soul or underlying character. He tells an especially whiny little story that Obama didn’t ask him more about his family’s history of skin disease when Nicholas explained that this history was why he was wearing a big floppy hat. What narcissicism. The famous man is just a little too busy to shoot the shit with you about your fucking hat, maybe. You’re not his pal or his friend: you’re there to do a job, as a professional.
Some things for Nicholas to consider:
1. It could be that some people are what they appear to be: that Obama is just a methodical, controlled, relatively serene, somewhat intellectual, somewhat reserved person. Not everybody is eatin’ barbecue with the reporters and then screwing an intern ten minutes later, or has a thin veneer of uneven civility papering over a stew of psychological insecurities that go back to childhood slights experienced in a lower middle-class California shithole. Political reporters want there to be more to the story because it lets them claim to have insights that the rest of us simply can’t see without that access. Not the least of which because they’re desperate to prove that following a guy around is instantly value-added whether or not the reporter doing the following has any particular talent or insight. Otherwise: what’s the point of reportage? The thing is, some reporters do provide value-added, but that’s because they do more than just wait for the candidate to come back and pal around with them.
2. Why on earth should Obama have laid bare his inner thoughts, emotions or vulnerabilities to Nicholas or any other reporter on his plane? What would Nicholas do with that kind of information that would help Obama? If it’s not going to help him, why should he do it? If he has a private character which is dramatically at odds with the way he acts as a public figure, who cares? You could argue that Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon’s private character was already very visible in their style of public leadership: knowing more only helped you to understand those visible patterns in the way they governed. All that really matters in the end is what a public figure does in his public role, though. So if Obama controls himself in the presence of reporters, that is his private character, as far as we’re concerned. His control, discipline and maturity is what has made him politically successful so far, and I think it’s reasonable to suppose that will structure his leadership as President.
This all goes back to Janet Malcolm’s famous accusation that journalists often work hard to seduce people into revealing information by pretending to be their friends and then turning around and betraying that aura of confidence and sympathy. Nicholas is just peeved that he’s come up against someone who is smart enough to not fall for that trick. In that, he’s not much different than a con man who is pissed off that his mark is on to him.
#3: What insight has the public gained into the character of political leaders when reporters have had the kind of access that Nicholas demands? Did extensive journalistic access to John McCain fully illuminate the impulsiveness and twitchy irritability he displayed on the campaign trail? Sure, there were always vague whispers in past coverage of McCain about his temper, and McCain himself (via Mark Salter) has always been pretty frank about his impulsive inclinations. Did that lead to extensive reportage about McCain’s private character on the front pages of major dailies, where that information had the same factual status as claims about policy positions? No. To get at this kind of information, you had to dig deep into online troves, or read down to the 25th paragraph on page A23 of a news analysis. What this mostly led to was a bunch of man-crushes from reporters in 2000 and again in 2008 who didn’t turn their access to McCain into public knowledge in anything but the most oblique form.
#4: Nicholas complains that the Obama campaign has promised “transparency in governance”, and access to the public. Listen up: transparency in governance is not about showing reporters into your bedroom and letting them look through the underwear drawer. It’s not about having a beer and shooting the shit. Transparency in governance is about releasing budgets, transcripts, reports, communications. It’s about making the business of government accessible to all. Transparency is when I or any other member of the public can find out easily who the Vice-President consulted to help formulate a new energy policy. Transparency is when I or any other member of the public can find out the names of all people detained in Gitmo, find out who earmarked which expenditure in the federal budget, find out the tax records of public officials, find out who gave money to whose campaign, find out what deliberations an executive agency went through before announcing a new policy. Access is when press conferences aren’t treated as an occasional exercise in controlled public relations, but as a routine obligation of the President. Access is providing a window into the processes of governance.
Transparency and access are not Peter Nicholas getting to have a heart-to-heart with the President and learning his personal secrets. Neither does political reporting done right require such information.
To borrow one of Brad DeLong’s favorite recurrent themes, “why oh why can’t we have a better press corps”?