Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


November 18, 2008

The Post-Election News Flash

Several election stories surfaced after the votes were counted, thanks to confidentiality agreements between reporters and campaigns. But does a journalist have an obligation to report newsworthy information promptly?

Adam Conner-Simons

After months upon months of round-the-clock media coverage leading up to the presidential election, you might think that everything that needed to be said about the candidates had been revealed. And yet, in the days after the election, a torrent of information was disclosed to the public. A lot of that information came from Newsweek. As part of a tradition stemming back to the 1984 elections, the magazine published a seven-part, 50,000-word article—the culmination of nearly two years of behind-the-scenes coverage of the candidates.

Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor at Newsweek
"We made a promise of confidentiality that we take very seriously, so it would have to be something pretty sensational to affect the election."

Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor at Newsweek

It might seem strange that the weekly news magazine would put off publishing such salacious bits as the real amount spent on Sarah Palin's wardrobe or Bill Clinton's reaction to Hillary losing Iowa, but that was all part of the deal. In a special arrangement, a group of Newsweek reporters received privileged access from the campaigns under the condition that they not publish anything until after the election.

In the campaign trail's tightly controlled press environment (especially in the Obama camp), a little extra access can go a long way. "The project reporters generally learned more than the magazine reporters," says Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas, "because they could promise that the information wouldn't come out until after the election." Such extensive access gave the reporters a unique opportunity to uncover fresh insider perspectives on campaign stories ranging from Hillary Clinton's teary-eyed "Muskie moment" to tensions in the McCain camp the week before the election.

For a news source, however, agreements like these pose tricky ethical questions about withholding important facts from the public. These journalists could find themselves faced with potentially election-changing information. "What would happen if there was some major revelation?" asks Andy Schotz, chair of the Ethics Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists. "Would the writers be free to report it right away?" The results of the election might not have hinged on Barack Obama's off-the-cuff remark that "we can't solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house," for instance, but what if the reporters had uncovered news of a Watergate-level scandal that the voting public ought to know about?

"We've never had to cross that bridge," says Newsweek's Thomas, who served as head writer on the 2008 series and has been working on the special election projects since 1996. "We made a promise of confidentiality that we take very seriously, so [the news] would have to be something pretty sensational to affect the election." Thomas doubts, for instance, that Newsweek would have broken its agreement if his team had learned, as Fox News reporter Carl Cameron did, that Governor Palin thought Africa was a country. (Despite a hoax surrounding the sourcing of the comment, Fox stands by the story.)

It's important, however, to distinguish between the news sources' arrangements: Cameron, unlike Newsweek, neglected to spell out the nature of his reporting before the election, leaving viewers unsure if he tidily swept anti-Palin news under the rug at the time he learned of it. He said vaguely, "I wish I could have told you at the time, but all of it was put off the record until after the election." Who put what off the record and when is unclear, and Fox did not reply to Gelf's questions about the nature of Cameron's reporting.

Despite some journalistic concerns, Slate media critic Jack Shafer argues that such agreements are hardly unprecedented, likening Newsweek's series to Bob Woodward's brand of long-form narrative journalism in which his subjects can assume a deadline far in the future. (Woodward himself has been no stranger to controversy about his tactics: His book The Commanders
revealed that Colin Powell opposed Operation Desert Storm, a fact that could have affected the subsequent vote in Congress on a war resolution.)

Shafer cautions that while Newsweek's project has a long-standing and reputable history, such practices could be viewed as playing into the hands of the candidates' tightly-managed campaigns. "It corrupts daily news when journalists allow themselves to be gamed by their subjects," Shafer says. "The more a source can tie you up in sourcing rules, the more control he has over you."

There has not been much outcry in journalism circles over Newsweek's practice of holding back information, partly because Newsweek has been a trustworthy political news outlet with fine judgment, but also because it has not yet been tested with any major breaking stories. Such a scenario is not so far-fetched. What if a Newsweek reporter with privileged access had come across John Edwards's affair while he was still in the running? Would the magazine be obliged to hold back until after the election? According to Thomas, there is no written agreement between the magazine and the campaigns, as of now. While there will always be ethically dicey situations, Newsweek could create some clarity by establishing written ground rules for what sort of information it would and would not share ahead of the election. News the publication deemed too significant to hold back—determined by an agreed-upon set of criteria—would be fair game. That way, as Shafer puts it, sources do not have as much control over journalists. Also, let's not forget that the voters—that amorphous public interest the press supposedly serves—should be going into the booth as informed about their candidates as possible.

Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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Article by Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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