Bob Woodward, blackmailer!

The hardest working man in journalism, Washington Post media reporter Howie Kurtz, has a piece today comparing the current New York Post Page Six blackmail scandal to the way political journalists operate: Be nice to sources who cooperate; make life difficult for those who don’t.

To illustrate his point, Howie cites a number of journalistic episodes/practices that have drawn criticism of late: Judy Miller’s serving as a mouthpiece for bad WMD info; White House reporters agreeing to secret, off-the-record chats with Bush; Bob Woodward acting as a stenographer for White House power players (Howie is, of course, more diplomatic in his characterization), and White House reporters occasionally writing positive stories to ingratiate themselves with key sources. (This last practice, of course, is hardly confined to White House scribblers; though Howie doesn’t mention it, the production of “beat sweeteners” is standard operating procedure for journalists assigned to a particular industry or area of government.)

In the broadest sense, I can see the parallel. (And before anyone asks, I don’t have much of a dog in this hunt. Coaxing sensitive tidbits out of reticent sources isn’t exactly in my wheelhouse.) Source reporting requires certain techniques and compromises that can carry a whiff of the dishonest and lend themselves to abuse—especially if the reporter in question is, say, an out-of-control megalomaniac like Miller. Even so, there seems to be a significant difference between the examples Howie cites--all of which involve reporters cutting either implicit or explicit deals with sources in exchange for info that (ostensibly) enables to the reporter to better do his or her job—and a reporter informing some billionaire that, unless he wants to have his personal life splashed all over the papers, he had better start fattening said reporter’s personal bank account.

Couple of caveats: Yes, in the cases Howie mentions, the reporters in question are also expecting to benefit  personally in the form of career advancement. But being personally ambitious is not an ethical no-no per se. Blackmail, by contrast, is. Also, there’s no question that some reporters get too close to sources and wind up getting snowed or use their cozy relationship with sources as a way to be lazy in their reporting. But those are examples of the way such reporting techniques can be corrupted, rather than indictments of the techniques themselves. Blackmail for personal financial gain, by contrast, is by definition a corrupt enterprise.

None of which is to suggest that the political media doesn’t have a lot to answer for of late--most notably letting itself get suckered into backing a lousy war. But unless, say, Timesman David Sanger is ginning up Iran hysteria because Dick Cheney has refused to buy him a new Maybach, the Page 6-political press parallels seem like a reach.