Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Just what source needs protection here?

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

That, of course, is the text of the First Amendment. I've highlighted the final twenty-two words to emphasize that freedom of the press is placed neck and neck with the right of citizens to gather and tell the government what it's doing wrong.

This juxtaposition is, to me, significant in that it reminds us that our ability to petition the government is in many cases dependant on the press performing its duties fairly, efficiently, and without officials looking over their shoulders. Usually, after all, we learn that the government has failed us precisely because the press has shown us it is so. Think of the Pentagon Papers case.

Now in order to conduct its important functions in our free society, the press often needs to conceal its sources. Whistle blowers deserve protection. We want someone to come forward if he has information that the construction firm building a bridge is saving money by using inferior steel; we don't want him deciding not to do so because the paper or TV news report won't guarantee his anonymity. He might have justifiable fear that the construction company will send goons out to make his life miserable if his name becomes known.

All this is very well and good. But why, I say why, do reporters feel the need to protect their sources in stories about political campaigns?

This week, Andrea Mitchell and NBC, her network, have come under considerable criticism for comments Mitchell made on Sunday's "Meet the Press," involving the performances by Barack Obama and John McCain in their appearances last Saturday at the Saddleback Church. From the transcript:

"MS. ANDREA MITCHELL: ... And, you know, there was the crisp, immediate, forceful response by John McCain, clearly in a comfort zone because he was with his base. And Barack Obama, taking a risk in going there but seeing an opportunity. And a much more nuanced approach. The Obama people must feel that he didn't do quite as well as they might have wanted to in that context, because that -- what they're putting out privately is that McCain may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama."

Not surprisingly, the McCain camp was rather perturbed by what Mitchell said, and fired off a letter of complaint to NBC.

Okay, let's lay aside any questions that could be construed as being partisan and simply look at this through the lens of logic. What if instead of the words I've transcribed above, Mitchell had said this:

"The Obama people must feel that he didn't do quite as well as they might have wanted to in that context. I spoke with Mortimer "Mudcat" Muttonbutz, the Obama campaign's Manager of Whimpering and Sending Out for Chinese Food, and he said that McCain may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama."

If she'd said that, would there be any criticism of Mitchell or her network for the "Meet the Press" segment? Only by people really out to blast NBC. And note the only difference between what Mitchell actually said and what I've created: in my version she named a name. Everybody who gets angry about this sort of thing would be out for the skin of Mortimer Muttonbutz, because it would be obvious that Mitchell was simply reporting what a living, breathing person was saying rather than some unnamed source "in the Obama camp." By declaring what the Obama people were saying "privately," she just opened herself to charges of doing dirty work for a political campaign.

And this is why I cannot for the life of me understand why the press doesn't have a hard and fast rule: there will be NO reporting of what one campaign says about its opposition unless a staff member connected with the campaign is willing to stand front and center, identify himself, and make the allegations. There's no need for the source to be protected here as with my hypothetical example of the weak steel whistle blower. The public interest--which the press in our free society is supposed to serve--is in no way enhanced by giving political campaigns anonymity as they hiss at each other.

Now I know that if Mitchell had said to an Obama campaign worker suggesting McCain cheated, "Hey, can I use your name for that?" the staff member might well have said no, and if NBC observed my policy of not using anything one campaign said about another without a named source, we wouldn't know someone in Obama's camp thinks McCain might have engaged in a bit of chicanery. But would the press be compromising it's duty to us by not reporting on this matter? Would we in any way be hurt by not knowing what Obama's people privately think?

I don't think we'd suffer at all for not knowing. We're not at risk of driving over a poorly constructed bridge here; we simply wouldn't be privy to a bit of sniping of the sort that has gone on in politics for ages. And if you think I'm taking this position because it would be helpful to McCain if this story hadn't seen the light of day, guess what, Obama is arguably scarred by this as much as his rival. My impression, at least, is that Obama's camp is getting hammered in the blogosphere for its anonymous suggestion far more than McCain is being grilled over the possibility of the cheat. By now, probably both candidates wish Mitchell had shut up.

No reporting on what one political campaign said about another without a name and a face being attached to the allegation. I think this is an idea whose time has come.

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