Paul Farhi of The Washington Post writes today about a trend at the White House — and throughout journalism — that threatens the quality and credibility of news-gathering: Public-relations "minders" are injecting themselves into our interviews with politicians, CEOs, and other policymakers.
Minder madness joins the surge of "background briefings" and the decline of access to decision-makers as evidence that the White House — and other big instititutions — are manipulating the press. It's that, but it's also something worse: It's evidence that journalists are ceding control when they should be seizing it, accepting canned news rather than breaking it.
Farhi writes, "Almost every officially sanctioned exchange between reporters and the proverbial 'senior administration officials' is conducted in the presence of a press staffer, even when the interview is 'on background,' meaning the source will not be identified by name."
Journalists tend to view minders with suspicion, if not outright alarm. A third party can alter any interaction in unforeseen ways. One White House reporter notes with irritation that minders have sometimes cut off contentious questioning or otherwise interrupted the flow of conversation.
More broadly, journalists see it as part of a larger official effort to shape their coverage, similar to demands to approve quotes before they're published or to keep even the most mundane information off the record.
"If you have a minder there, it sits in [a source's] brain that they're supposed to stay on message," said Peter Baker, who covers the White House for the New York Times. "They're less likely to share something other than the talking points." Having minders around, Baker says, "is obviously intended to control the message. Let's put it this way: It's not intended to increase candor."
Before sharing a few lessons that I learned the hard way on the White House and campaign beats, I should dispense with the caveats. First, anonymous sources are a crucial way to uncover news that governments, corporations, and other institutions seek to cover up. Second, briefings with anonymous sources ("on background") arranged by these entities can occasionally be revealing. Third, not all stories require access to a decision-maker, and conducting an interview with a PR "minder" in the room doesn't have to curb the journalistic experience.