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Television News Gleefully Trades Integrity for Access

08/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Update: Jon Stewart covered this story last night on The Daily Show. I have embedded a short video clip at the end of the post.

Between the continuous coverage of Michael Jackson for weeks on end, Pat Buchanan's barrage of racist comments on MSNBC, and the death of Walter Cronkite, it has been an awfully bad few weeks for television news.

Things are about to get worse.

On Friday afternoon, the Charleston Post and Observer uploaded 570 pages of emails (PDF) they obtained from Mark Sanford's office. The emails were all between reporters/anchors/producers and Sanford's Communications Director, Joel Sawyer. This document is chock full of examples of what is wrong with journalism today. Two especially troubling practices are seen repeatedly in the email exchanges:

1. Direct assurances or strong hints that the Governor will be given glowing coverage and will have the opportunity to spin the story however he likes, if he grants access to a particular outlet.

2. Attacks on other media outlets, or the press in general, for asking so many tough questions. The clear implication is that, if given access, the "reporter" in question will be much more fair and reasonable.

Both of these are symptoms of the same problem -- sacrificing journalistic integrity to gain access. This is something we expect of outlets like Fox News and The Washington Times, but the brazenness with which TV personalities like David Gregory, David Schuster and others engage in this practice is truly disturbing.

Below I've compiled some of the more egregious emails in the document (PDF). I have started with some that are more predictable, and saved some of the best for last. All emphasis is mine.

First, here are some emails that fall into the first category I mentioned above: assurances of friendly coverage.

Erick Erickson, of Redstate.com, offers himself up as a stenographer for the Governor. Gush!

If he wants something more personal for the blog to push back, I'm happy to help, but I'll get this up now. Obviously he's got more than just the usual suspects trying to make hay out of this thing and we're big fans.

George Stephanapolous of ABC's This Week offers a civil forum in which Sanford can discuss other policy issues (Page 397):

Know you must be besieged. If governor looking for civil forum to address this week's events (and significantly, other policy issues), we'd love to have him on This Week. Please email or call to discuss. 202-230-XXXX.

Hang in there, George

Griff Jenkins of Fox News, who recently got his ass handed to him by Adam Green, shows his true colors:

Joel-

Good to talk to you - I would like to get the Gov. to call in TODAY for 5-10 min between 10-11a to be on the Strategy Room (Fox News' live streaming channel) to set the record straight on the hiking story.

Following up, super-journalist Griff Jenkins tries to secure some soundbites of the Governor "dispelling this flap..." (Page 302):

Hey Joel - Just a fast update - I have an hour again this afternoon frm 4-5p. If the Gov does an interview and its exclusive, it will make air on the tv channel and our radio news service all across the country. And I'm not sure if you've seen the stuff I do on the channel as a reporter, but I work mostly for our primetime coverage - Oreilly, Hannity, Greta, Beck -- so there would likely be primetime coverage as well for some soundbites of the Gov. dispelling this flap...

Beth Rotatori of CNN feels bad for the governor -- his hike was cut short! She also wants to offer him the opportunity to "help clear the air" (Page 288):

Hey Joel,

Appreciate you keeping us looped-in on this. Sorry to hear the Governor's hike was cut short - but glad to hear he's safe.

We'd still love to talk to him about all the interest this generate and help clear the air on where he was, etc. Any chance you'd be able to join us on the show tomorrow or Thursday - whenever he gets back to Columbia?

David Schuster of MSNBC is especially honest about his intentions (Page 132):

Hey Joel,

My producers want us to do a short reader on this at 4:30pm. Have you seen the Governor since last Thursday? Did he have plans for the weekend? Anything unusual about this? The first lady doesn't know where he is?

Let me know... I'd be happy to kill this story.

First, David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press promises "a fair shake" that will put all of this to rest: (Page 69):

Hey Joel ...

Left you a message. Wanted you to hear directly from me that I want to have the Gov on Sunday on Meet The Press. I think it's exactly the right forum to answer the questions about his trip as well as giving him a platform to discuss the economy/stimulus and the future of the party. You know he will get a fair shake from me and coming on MTP puts all of this to rest.

After Sanford's Communications Director balked at the offer, Gregory pulled out all the stops, explaining that "Meet the Press allows you to frame the conversation how you really want to" (Page 68):

Look, you guys have a lot of pitches .. I get it and I know this is a tough situation ... Let me just say this is the place to have a wider conversation with some context about not just the personal but also the future for him and the party ... This situation only exacerbates the issue of how the GOP recovers when another national leader suffers a setback like this. So coming on Meet The Press allows you to frame the conversation how you really want to...and then move on. You can see you have done your interview and then move on. Consider it.

Ann Edelberg of NBC Universal explicitly offers an "open invite to a friendly place". The friendly place in question? None other than Morning Joe (Page 262):

Hi J,

Hope you are well. Would not be doing my gig I I did not reach out. Of course, the Gov has an open invite to a friendly place here at MJ [Morning Joe], if he would like to speak out. Just let me know.

Jessica Gibadlo of MSNBC takes it one step further. She actually helps Sanford's staff come up with a positive way to spin the story (Page 253):

As you know I'm close to Contessa [Brewer] who has been in my ear on this. She said that the tone in the news room is that Mark could spin this favorably if he talks it up as the outdoors man in the woods etc. For all we know he's contemplating the last year of his term and thinking through his priorities before he goes on his family vacation.

Joseph Deoudes of the Washington Times is quite explicit as well (Page 240):

Good morning. I see the reports of the Gov.'s break everywhere. If you all want to speak on this publicly, you're welcome to Washington Times Radio. You know that you will be on friendly ground here.

Kendall Heath of ABC offers a pretty good take into the type of interview George Stephanapolous wanted to give on This Week (Page 49):

Hey Joel,

Just tried you at the office.... would Gov. Sanford be able to join George this Sunday on This Week? After all the hoopla surrounding his whereabouts this past week, would be great to have him on the show to clarify everything, put a stop to the Lt. Gov's claims, respond to the DNC ad and look ahead to the important challenges the GOP face in the months to come. Think it'd be an important step for him to address this then move forward and talk about the real issues out there.

Tim Miller of the local Fox Affiliate tries to secure the Governor's favor by mentioning that he isn't giving any airtime to those who "want on to bash"(Page 39):

Joel,

This stuff really has taken on a life of its own (I'm not telling you anything you don't already know!) The Governor can have the floor tomorrow for 10 minutes and reach over a million people on the show tomorrow.

I've already have calls from others who want on to bash....I'm not doing that!

Here are some emails that fall into the second category I mentioned above: attacking other media outlets for pursuing the story too aggressively.

Jake Tapper went after those mean liberals at MSNBC, first sending this (Page 313):

David Gregory of NBC just tweeted: FM First Read re Gov Sanford: U should be concerned if "your wife say(s) that she doesn't know where you are but that she isn't concerned"

Then following up with this (Page 20):

For the record, I think the TODAY Show spot was pretty insulting...

Griff Jenkins of Fox News came back for more:

Having known the Governor for years and even worked with him when he would host radio shows for me - I find this story and the media frenzy surrounding it to be absolutely ridiculous!

Yea, Griff -- Who knew a story about a sitting Governor disappearing for a week to hook up with his Argentinian mistress would attract a media frenzy? The nerve!

Stewart Moore, of local WISTV takes a shot at the Today show as well (Page 269):

I couldn't believe the Today show thought it was such a big deal that they sent a national correspondent. Since he is on the road back tomorrow morning, any chance we can get him on the phone then.

So we can finally put this story to rest...

In a separate email, Stewart Moore writes:

Off the record, I think this whole thing is ridiculous. Sounds like slow news day stuff.

On the record: For the sake of good journalism, is there anyway we can get the Governor of for a phoner @ 6:30am? I think that will end the crazy situation we both find ourselves, more so you, in.

John King of CNN is probably still wiping the egg off of his face this one (Page 156):

Open Invite. Is he back by Sunday?

Mrs. Sanford saying doesn't know where is what has your many conspiracy theorist friends abuzz.

I'm all for anonymous escapes myself!

Brendan Miniter of Dow Jones lashed out at the Wall Street Journal (Page 267):

Someone at WSJ should be fired for today's story. Ridiculous.

Michelle Moryc of Fox News offers to present it as a non-story that was "blown up in the media" on Neil Cavuto's show (Page 265):

Hi Joel! I'm sure you're incredibly busy - but I wanted to check in on the Governor's availability tomorrow for an interview --- whether it's a phoner/on cam... either are great. We wanted to talk about how his hiking trip was completely blown up in the media -when it was really just a non-story. Is this something he would be able to discuss with Neil [Cavuto]?

So much for solidarity in the 4th estate. While it is somewhat comical to see these outlets trash each other and trip over themselves to offer Governor Sanford the friendliest venue possible, it really is a major problem for journalism. If refraining from asking hard questions is a prerequisite for gaining access to the halls of power - nobody will ask the hard questions when they most need to be asked (Iraq War, anyone?) Stephen Colbert summed this up nicely in his epic correspondents dinner speech a few years ago:

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!

TPM Muckracker's Zachary Roth has a smart take on all of this:

When you read the emails by Gregory, King, Stephanopoulos and others, you start to understand why most major network interviews with politicians tend to be a lot less hard hitting than they need to be to really hold their subjects accountable. The politicians themselves have the power to make or break the networks, by granting or withholding access. That ends up meaning that, consciously or not, the networks soften their approaches -- both in their pitches, and in their actual interviews -- in exchange for that access.

We have known about the access of evil phenomenon for some time now, but I think this document is the best hard proof of it we've seen yet. So the next time you see any of these "journalists" interviewing someone powerful on television, ask yourself a few questions:

* What promises did they make in order to secure the interview?
* Did they agree not to broach a certain subject?
* Was there an agreement beforehand to try to spin a potentially negative story in a positive light?

You may not have proof that the answers to these questions are yes, but you have ample reason to be highly skeptical.

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