A Farewell Guide to Political Journalism

Lessons gleaned from 30 years of covering American politics—from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump

A reporter raises his hand during a White House press briefing. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

I left political journalism once before—to help launch a social media site designed to engage political influencers in civil conversation. It failed (one critic called it “the idiotic Hotsoup.com”), but among the many lessons I took away from the experience was one about journalism.

In a meeting just before the site launched, my business partners—six of the smartest, most successful political consultants in Washington—debated which reporter would be given an interview announcing our venture.

I mentioned a particular journalist known to be an easy mark inside the White Houses of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Afraid of confrontation, eager to please, and lazy, this reporter printed whatever minor bits of news and color aides fed him, without skepticism or criticism. I didn’t respect the guy. Nor did most other reporters forced to compete against a patsy who benefited from a policy of mutual-assured promotion.

“He’ll gobble up what we feed him,” I told my partners.

One groaned. Another winced and said, “Yes, but nobody will buy it. Nobody respects him. They’ll know it’s just a press release.”

Until that moment, I assumed the people we covered in politics valued pushover journalists. I thought this particular reporter got ahead by going along. That might be true on the small stories, but not for the stuff that matters.

One of my partners asked about a Washington Post political correspondent known for his tough, insightful coverage. “You think Dan Balz would buy this?”

“I don’t know,” said another. “But if Balz loves Hotsoup, we’re golden. If he hates it, we’re toast.”

Balz never did write about the project, and we were toast. But I left the meeting knowing that if I ever returned to journalism, I didn’t want to be taken for granted liked the first reporter. I wanted to inspire in my sources what Balz had earned from my partners—respect and fear.

Now that I’m leaving political journalism again, I’d like to share a few other things I’ve learned since joining the profession 30 years ago in Arkansas, where I covered Bill Clinton.

Don’t lose sight of your mission. A reporter’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible, overriding personal biases and sifting through a rising churn of spin and lies to explain what happened and why it matters. At its highest levels, journalism informs (via scoops and insights that would otherwise be unknown), provokes (via new thoughts and action), and holds powerful people accountable (with no fear or favor).

You’re not working for your editors, other reporters on your beat, or your sources. You’re working for the public, your audience, which is why you don’t slip acronyms, anonymous quotes, and other insidery detail into your stories just to impress folks on your beat. Also, remember for whom you work when you’re rewriting a press release or broadcasting a spoon-fed story for the wrong reasons—“because I’ve got to keep them happy” or “I’ve got to show them I’m relevant, that I’m the reporter they come to.” That’s how you become a patsy. It’s not how you develop sources.

You develop sources by building relationships. Draw up a list of the people on your beat who know things your audience needs to know. Call or email every one of them and ask them out for coffee or lunch. Keep lists. Keep calling. When you’re meeting a potential source for the first time, keep the conversation informal. Get to know him or her. Where’s she from? How does she get along with her family? What are her hobbies? Write a thank-you note after that first meeting, and follow up for a second and a third and a fourth. Don’t consummate the relationship until you’ve built one; it might take weeks, months, or even years to accumulate enough trust for a source to give you information that is valuable for your audience to know and dangerous for your source to convey. (I conducted workshops at The Associated Press that compared source development to the rituals of dating.)

Don’t hesitate to hurt a source. One of the reasons to build relationships with people you cover is so that they understand your mission, which means they shouldn’t expect favors when they find your job in conflict with theirs. Fairness and honesty are central to any relationship, and nobody likes surprises, which is why I tell sources, “I’ll never stab you in the back. I’ll always stab you in the chest.” In other words, you’ll know when I’m writing about you or your boss, you’ll know exactly how negative the story will be, and you’ll get a chance to argue your case—but you’ll still get the sharp end of the knife. A reporter’s job isn’t to make friends. It’s to build relationships that inform and provoke readers, and to hold powerful people accountable. Remember the Balz lesson: Your sources are more likely to respect you if they’re a little afraid of you.

Don’t cede power to the powerful. I’ve written repeatedly (here, here, and here) about how the media needs to confront a dangerous shift of power away from journalists and toward the people they cover. The short version: Stop ceding control and start doing things that bring powerful people to heel. You don’t like background briefings? Stand up at them and say, “I am filing this briefing to Twitter and quoting you by name.” You want Donald Trump to release his tax records? Impose an embargo on his free airtime until he does so. Campaign officials are bullying one of your reporters over a tough story she did?  Get her help: Assign four more reporters to the story and tell them to dig deeper, because apparently she’s on to something. Political operatives are adapting, finding new and ruthless ways to mislead the public. Journalists must adapt, too.

You control the ground rules. An addendum to the rule above, all news and information is on the record and suitable for publication or broadcast, subject to the sole discretion of journalists. On your beat, any exceptions to that rule must be approved in advance by you. A company email marked “off the record” or “on background” and sent to you unsolicited is an email you can publish—on the record. An advanced text of a speech marked “embargoed” and sent to you unsolicited is a speech you can publish—immediately. A government official who tells you something in an interview and then says, “That’s off the record” gets a polite but curt reply, “It’s on the record, sir. I’m a reporter, not a priest.”

You may want to talk on background. Before granting somebody anonymity, ask yourself, “Am I doing this in service of my audience or my ego?” The standard rule for using anonymous sources, published in Associated Press style books used in almost every newsroom, is: “Whenever possible, we pursue information on the record. When the source insists on background or off-the-record ground rules, we must adhere to a strict set of guidelines.” First, the material is information “and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.” Second, the information is not available on the record. Third, the source is reliable. Many times, the only way to reveal secrets and ugly truths is to disguise the identities of people who expose them.

Write with authority. Don’t use crutches like “critics say” when the truth can stand on its own. If the president has said something that is factually wrong, just write or say, “The president is wrong.” If you can show the deception is intentional, tell your audience, “The president lied.” Don’t strain for balance or equivalence in a story where there is none.  The truth is rarely black and white or evenly balanced between poles. When you’re writing and editing a story, focus on your first paragraph—the lede that tightly explains what happened. But spend the most time on your “nut paragraph,” that chunk of context explaining why the news is important to your audience or what it might say about future behavior. If you’re writing an opinion piece, that “nut paragraph” may actually be your lede.

Politics isn’t just about winning. I loathe political journalism that reduces every development or controversy into a single lazy question: “What does this say about how Candidate X will fare on Election Day?” The better question is often ignored: “What does this say about how Candidate X would govern?” This horserace bias helped fuel Donald Trump’s rise, as each outrageous utterance seemed to be forgotten, if not excused, when polls showed that the callousness was not hurting his poll numbers. In most campaign coverage, “Will he win?” trumped “Should he win?” It wasn’t until Trump’s approval numbers started tanking in general election polling that his suitability for the office became a mainstream issue.

Politics isn’t just a science. For as much as reporters should use data and study political science, they shouldn’t ignore the sociology of the beat. We don’t cover mere numbers or studies or even candidates; we cover people—people who want to lead a nation of people buffeted by a confluence of economic, technological, and demographic change unlike anything the United States has experienced since the late 1800s and early 1900s. Understand that history. Get outside of Washington and ask people how their lives and politics are changing. This is how I wrapped my head around why good people support a bad candidate like Trump, people who I started calling “Crazy Buts.”

Don’t follow the herd. Journalists in Washington tend to chase the same stories based on the same assumptions to reach the same conclusions. Resist the temptation because it’s boring and bad for your career. The way to advance in journalism is to be distinctive, which means telling stories that nobody else is telling, which starts by asking questions nobody else is asking, which can only be done if you ignore the convention wisdom and group think, which takes guts. Take a chance. Take control.

Eventually, the dynamic shifts. You start breaking stories and stabbing people in the chest, and now the powerful people need you more than you need them. You stop begging for information, because now they beg you. “What are you working on?” ask government and campaign officials, the same people who used to ignore your emails and calls—and that’s when you know you’ve got ‘em. They trust you. They respect you. They may or may not like you, but what really matters is this: They’re a little afraid of you.

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