Holmes Report Blog

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Unjust Kaus?: Mickey Kaus takes issue with Ron Burkle’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, which raised several interesting questions about journalistic standards in the wake of the Page Six scandal.

According to Burkle, “gossip and tabloid-style journalism has been spreading rapidly to other spheres of reporting. Gossip coverage that used to be devoted primarily to movie stars now encompasses politicians and business people…. We've all read how well-known and respected journalists have readily protected top-ranked officials leaking classified information. It makes one wonder: Where does the political reporter end and the political operative begin?”

Kaus retorts: “Protecting leakers! Does Burkle think this is a new, tabloidy trend in conventional, respectable journalism? The FBI protects turncoat witnesses, journalists don't screw good sources.”

Maybe it’s not new, but the fact that journalists have been doing it forever doesn’t mean it’s either ethical or appropriate. Note that Burkle is not talking about whistleblowers, leaking information at personal risk to expose wrongdoing, but about “top-ranked officials leaking classified information”—in other words, representatives of powerful institutions who are ashamed to be associated with vicious personal attacks on their critics, or try to get those attacks in through the back door with the complicity of reporters, who in the process become willing agents of the institutions they are supposed to be covering. (I'm pretty sure Burkle and I are thinking of the same disgraceful episode.)

But I particularly like Kaus’s sign-off question: “Is Burkle a persecuted businessman trying to carve out a zone of privacy against dissembling gossips? Or is he a guy with a lot to hide attempting to intimidate and marginalize potential new, blog-like, unconventional threats?”

Such questions provide a wonderful mechanism through which journalists can make an accusation without any supporting evidence, because hey, they’re not making an accusation, they’re simply asking a question. Want to see how easy it is?

“Is Mickey Kaus asking this question because he really believes Burkle is afraid of the truth, or has he taken a massive bribe from the New York Post to attack the integrity a respected businessman and cover up an extortion scandal?... You, the reader, make the call!”


  • At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Howie Kurtz, Media Critic for the Washington Post has a different view:

    On April 17, 2006, he wrote a piece headlined:
    Reporters In Glass Houses
    From Washington, Page Six Is Just a Stone's Throw Away

    He writes:They traffic in whispered gossip, charming the big shots, working the party circuit. They gravitate toward boldface names who make good copy. They reward sources who cooperate and can be rougher on those who don't play the game.
    Seedy scribes for the New York Post's Page Six?
    Couldn't the same description fit Washington's elite journalists?
    No one is suggesting that a Beltway reporter would ask a source for $220,000 to keep bad stories out of the paper, as the Post's suspended gossip writer, Jared Paul Stern, was caught doing on videotape in conversations with Beverly Hills billionaire Ron Burkle. Not only that, while Stern was seeking money for his own punk-preppy clothing line, many Washington reporters are decidedly wardrobe-challenged.
    But despite its loftier reputation, the Washington press corps hasn't exactly been drawing rave reviews in recent years. Its members stand accused of the following:
    · Acting as a conduit for bad information from high-level sources, such as in Judith Miller's stories on Iraq's WMDs, which, as it turned out, were nonexistent.
    · Getting too cozy with administration sources and retailing their version of history, a charge sometimes leveled at Bob Woodward.
    · Pulling their punches with the White House because of concerns about losing access.
    · Meeting secretly with the president while taking a vow of silence about the off-the-record chats.
    Now, some of these complaints are overdone -- there's not much access to lose at the White House, where even favored reporters don't get many leaks (unless President Bush is secretly doing the declassifying) -- but, well, gosh, perhaps there's a grain of truth here.
    As Burkle wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "This source game is not only played on Page Six. It is also played for high stakes on Wall Street and in Washington."
    Don't most journalists try to seduce sources into sharing secrets, with an implied bargain of fair-to- really fair treatment? Don't most journalists tell reluctant sources that it would be a shame if they refused to cooperate and their side wasn't told? Haven't a few Washington journalists favorably profiled an official who might be useful on their beat?
    In short, is it really all that vast a distance from the TriBeCa nightspots prowled by Page Six writers to the Georgetown cocktail parties and Gridiron dinners where Washington reporters might sniff out news?
    "When you think about it," writes blogger Jeff Jarvis, "how much really separates celebrity gossip from Washington coverage? Rumors, blind items, schmoozing, tips, paybacks, grudges, parties, lunches, leaks, hidden agendas, corruption, sex. "
    Of course, Washington journalism is way above gushing over Angelina Jolie (unless she happens to be talking about her U.N. work) or Geena Davis (unless she's portraying a female president) or George Clooney (unless he's producing a show on K Street lobbyists).
    And D.C. reporters would never stoop to the "blind items" that populate Page Six ("Which TV anchor was seen canoodling in SoHo with a woman not his wife . . . ?"). When they do it, it's "senior officials who declined to be identified discussing sensitive matters and because they enjoy taking potshots at the opposition without being named."
    What distinguishes capital journalism is a much greater seriousness of purpose. Last week, Page Six wrote: "Word is that Star and the National Enquirer may be put on the block soon. Either way, editorial director Bonnie Fuller -- despite protestations -- may be out of a job anyway." (The next day, Page Six said that American Media has "full confidence" in Fuller and that "company reps also assured us that, contrary to our speculation yesterday, Star and the National Enquirer will not be put on the block.")
    By contrast, the New York Times cites a GOP source in saying the new White House chief of staff "wants Mr. Bush to replace the Treasury secretary, John W. Snow," while The Washington Post says that "the most prominent name discussed for possible replacement is Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who has often been rumored to be on the way out." A much better class of rumor, no?
    But there is little question that some New York gossip writers get better freebies. Stern told USA Today that he accepted a hotel junket to the Bahamas and often got free use of cars in exchange for favorable mentions. Page Six Editor Richard Johnson got a free trip to the Oscars and a fabulously expensive bachelor party at the Mexican estate of the producer of those "Girls Gone Wild" videos.
    And Washington reporters? A free screening at the Motion Picture Association of America? Unlimited hors d'oeuvres at a Capitol reception? Watching Condi work out on the road?
    The temptations are endless.


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