"The White House," writes Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, "has practically been overrun by journalists pumping top officials for behind-the-scenes details for a growing roster of behind-the-scenes books." This constant demand, Kurtz points out, makes it difficult for journalists to get the "long interviews required for narrative writing." And those journalists who do have regular access to White House sources "face a delicate balancing act," Kurtz writes, "since tough stories might alienate potential sources and flattering ones might loosen tongues."
In other words, there's a strong incentive to produce glowing accounts. Some commentators suggest that this typical dynamic is perhaps heightened under the Obama administration, since the appetite for Obama books is so strong. How bad is the problem?
- 'Oozing Conflicts' Glenn Greenwald--frequent critic of the Washington press--isn't happy about the cozy relationship between journalists hoping to make a profit off of "inside DC gossip" and their subjects. He says this kind of set up is responsible, for example, for "a glowing New Yorker profile of Rahm Emanuel so sycophantic it made the skin crawl"--also a "love letter to Larry Summers."
- 'An Unhealthy Pattern,' Steve Clemons terms it at The Washington Note. "What I have learned after discussions over the last several days with several journalists who either have regular access to the White House or are part of the White House press corps is that there is a growing sense that access is traded for positive stories."
- Fair Enough James Fallows, once a White House speechwriter, agrees with many of the criticisms, but points out that "this is a very long-standing situation and source of distortion. And considering the number of groups with a built-in berserk hostility to Obama, maybe it is karmic balance." He also draws an interesting distinction: campaign books, he says, are generally fairly reliable--it's the administration books you should be skeptical of. That's because, in campaigns, reporters generally see a lot of the action firsthand, and campaign workers "can't afford to freeze anybody out, starting with the press." Administrations are another matter--for both sides.
- How Is This News? "The White House press corps won't ask tough questions? They crave access?" Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein is unimpressed. "Everyone knows it was Woodward and Bernstein," he explains patiently, "and not the White House press corps, that took the lead on Watergate." That said, he tackles the notion that reporting is either "adversarial journalism" or "stenography." His only real complaint with beat reporters doing books is that some facts, even when "non-controversial" get saved for books instead of reported immediately.