Im sure many of you remember an incident during the 2000 presidential campaign when George W. Bush was caught referring to The New York Times Adam Clymer with a mild and very common expletive.
By DEREK DONOVAN
The Kansas City Star
Of course Bushs political opponents tried their best to make hay over the episode, but I recall thinking it was self-evidently a non-issue at the time. Ive always imagined that Clymer must have been bemusedly flattered at the candidates derision.
In fact, it would be professionally embarrassing to most political reporters I know for the people they cover to be completely enraptured by the coverage they receive.
Thats because one of the primary duties of journalists is to be a watchdog for the public, especially in matters of government. The framers of the Constitution were pretty clear on this point, obviously.
Multiple readers have contacted me lately about how The Kansas City Star has covered the ongoing negotiations and final deal over the fiscal cliff, and their evaluations havent all been positive.
Are you really going to let (Congress) just make these crazy, last-minute decisions without holding them to account? asked one caller last week. The Star should have a reporter on every congressmans doorstep, banging the door and not going away till they get answers.
I keep hearing about (the negotiations) getting in the way of money that needs to go to the East Coast to help people who had all that trouble with Hurricane Sandy, and I just want to read more about it, said a caller Jan. 3. Why am I only seeing this tiny blurb about it on the second page this morning? And why that would even be part of the deal over the fiscal cliff? The Star didnt explain it enough to me.
I just feel like the government isnt working for the people any more, and I think the newspapers should tell us where the money is or isnt going, said another caller that morning.
I hear these refrains from readers all the time, and I think editors and reporters should take one message to heart: With the proliferation of openly ideological news sources that abound on cable TV and the Internet, news consumers know politicians can choose to speak to sources that wont ask them the really hard questions. That results in flabby journalism and its a serious disservice to the audience of those sources.
Shortly before the election last November, I spoke to an area politician with a rather high and controversial profile on the national scene about a possible factual error in a column that had appeared in The Star.
He confirmed that a correction to the column was in order, and then volunteered that he thought a different reporter he speaks to frequently at The Star is tough, but fair. (I hope youll excuse my not naming the official or the reporter, but our conversation was about just the error, so I dont feel it would be appropriate to disclose that in this context.)
Thats the kind of feedback I think most journalists would wear as a badge of honor.
Of course there are situations where reporters uncover intentional fraud or deceit, and in those cases they wouldnt expect even begrudging praise.
But when officials are acting in good faith, even when that means they take action that may be wildly unpopular on one side of the aisle, journalists should strive to hit that balance by asking direct and probing questions while maintaining a professional relationship with the source.
I sometimes dont think readers appreciate that hostile, confrontational questioning by a reporter may cause even a public figure to close off access permanently something that happens frequently in the partisan alternative media. If officials wont return your calls, your reporting will necessarily suffer.