The worst-kept secret in our nation’s capital leaked out this week, albeit in a roundabout way.
The anecdotal proof came when several political reporters acknowledged that they let sources read their stories before publication, allowing the sources to spruce up their quotes.
(Full disclosure: I’ve let a source read a story or two over the years, taking into consideration — but never guaranteeing — any suggested changes. Actually, I think this is a practice we journalists should use more when time constraints allow. Sure would cut down errors.)
So, the fact that some of the big-time national reporters let sources change their quotes isn’t the real story. What should concern us all is why that happens, and we already know — access.
A reporter who plays hard and fast by the old-school rules could quickly find himself/herself on the outside looking in. No access, no story.
But here’s the question: How long would that last?
Politicians and blowhards love to throw darts at the media, blaming journalists for everything from the tenor in today’s politics to the common cold. It’s easy sport. It’s a catch-all. When something doesn’t go right, blame the media.
But what if the media didn’t show up one day? What if there were no cameras for senators to bloviate in front of? What if no reporter hung on every word from a congressman’s mouth? What if the White House briefing room sat empty?
Our nation would not fall. Odds are, we wouldn’t miss much, actually. Pretty good chance we could go on about our lives without missing a beat.
You can bet your bottom dollar, though, that newsroom phones at the major outlets would be ringing off the hook with media directors calling to beg for coverage of some news conference.
Junior staffers would be sending out e-mail after e-mail touting the tiniest accomplishment and slinging arrows at the enemy.
Heck, members of Congress themselves might even join the rest of us on this planet to ask what’s going on.
Why? One simple truth: Politicians and their ilk love to bash the media, but they can’t exist without them.
For all the bluster and hubbub about media bias, even politicians know that Americans will listen and believe what they read and watch and hear in the media. There’s a reason for that — 200 years of history.
It’s a pipe dream, but wouldn’t it be great if just one day, no one with a camera or notebook showed up. Then, the whole bunch laid out a simple rule: We’ll ask the questions; you answer them. No deal; no dice.
We’d get away from all these anonymous sources and he-said/she-said mess that never tells us anything of substance. Instead of trying to score points in a media-fostered game, politicians might actually reveal their message, tell taxpayers what they want to do.
If the national media would agree to raise the standards of their reporting, the balance of power could actually shift back to the people’s representative. Instead of going along to get along, the media folks could shut out those who play the access card.
How deliciously ironic would that be?
Alas, no point in holding your breath for that. With a couple hundred news networks, a couple dozen websites and a handful of national print publications all trying to be first with “the” story, competition is too stiff. And so the reporters will continue to cut slack to the men and women who offer the realm’s currency — access. Not wanting to be shut out, the media members will go along with whatever lackey rules the people in charge come up with.
And so it goes.
Rick Fahr is publisher of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.