A wise Washington lawyer once told me that "you don't win cases by making friends out of judges."
The same thing goes for journalists covering the government. You can't do your job as a Washington reporter by making friends of government officials. If nothing else, Bob Woodward's dust-up with Gene Sperling from the White House reminded of this once again. But what we sometimes forget is that it's a two-way street. You can't be tough in your reporting on government officials and not expect that sometimes they'll come back at you and be just as tough.
We badly need reporters who spend their time and effort to learn about our government, develop sources, ask tough questions, and report to the rest of us about what's really going on in Washington (and in state capitals and city halls around the country). Developing the sorts of sources you need to report -- really report -- on government means you have to get to know them. You have to be on good, or at least civil, terms with those on the inside so that they will give you some of the insight you need to provide your audience.
This isn't the same, however, as being friends with the government officials you're covering. When a president once told me how much he liked our White House correspondent, I responded that his ringing endorsement made me wonder about the strength of our reporting. Respect? You hope. Appreciation? Sometimes. But if the press is doing its job, those high up in government should always be a bit uneasy because journalists should be asking some uncomfortable questions -- and sometimes coming up with answers that are equally uncomfortable.
If journalists feel free, feel an obligation, to push and probe and challenge government officials, it just makes sense that those same officials sometimes push back. It asks too much of a person to be open to public scrutiny and criticism and not respond -- even respond with force in the heat of the moment. Part of this is the natural human instinct to counter-attack. But it's also because those in the government have a sincere and healthy belief in what they're doing.
I saw this regularly during my time at ABC News. Both my reporters and I felt the heat from the Clinton White House during our reporting on the Monica Lewinsky story; we felt a different kind of heat when the Bush White House thought we weren't being appropriately loyal or patriotic in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Often the disapproval was expressed in measured, although pointed, tones. Sometimes, it got more heated than that. And whether it was explicitly stated or not (and it happened both ways), it was never far from my mind that the White House had it within its power to hit back. It could publicly challenge us or criticize our coverage -- or even ridicule us. And it could act in more subtle ways, such as withholding prominent administration figures from interviews with ABC News.
One of the most blatant cases of a government official telling us that he could make us pay for our coverage came from the chair of a prominent congressional committee. We were investigating claims that he'd done some things that at least some people thought he shouldn't have done. One day he confronted our investigative reporter in the halls of the Congress. Without much subtlety, and with anger in his voice, he said that he would make sure that the reporter and that I personally would pay for our reporting -- and he reminded us that his committee had jurisdiction over issues affecting not just ABC News, but our parent, the Walt Disney Company. The reporter came to me to pass on the warning. We went ahead with our reporting, and as far as I could tell, the congressman never did anything to make good on his threat. I chalked it up to an angry outburst that any of us might be capable of, given the circumstances.
The emails exchanged between Bob Woodward and Gene Sperling over the ins and outs of the sequester are pretty civilized as these things go. But for reporters covering the government, it's sometimes part of the job to take real heat from those they're covering. And, in the end, reporters always have one of the most powerful defenses there is: to report to the public what the government's doing, including in its dealings with the press. When Bob Woodward got into a dispute with Gene Sperling, he laid it out there for all of us to see.
As another wise Washington lawyer once wrote, "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." That lawyer was Supreme Court Justice Luis Brandeis.
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