Saturday, October 6, 2007

Fighting the power

Hillary Clinton’s recent pre-emptive move against some of the press covering her ascendant Democratic presidential campaign is starting to get the expected (and deserved) reactions from journalists monitoring, if not actually covering, the campaign.

A story on the senator planned for publication in GQ –a piece about infighting within the campaign, written by Atlantic Monthly writer Josh Green -- was killed at her request, or, more appropriately, at the request of some of her operatives, who managed to extract a nasty quid pro quo: access to sources for a planned forthcoming GQ story on her hubby, former President Bill Clinton, would be denied if the Hillary story went through as planned [see "Hill kill" for more of the details].

Jon Friedman got the ball rolling in his Oct. 1 MarketWatch column, “Memo to Hillary,” telling the senator, in no uncertain terms, “you are playing a dangerous game with the media.”

Friedman said “that kind of stuff may work at GQ, which can be loosely regarded as a fashion magazine stuffed with some words. But if you think you can pull the same stunt with other self-respecting media organizations, you might not be so lucky.”

But the always spot-on Ron Rosenbaum, writing for Slate, really weighed in on Thursday, Oct. 4, with a Spectator column that smartly puts her seemingly isolated action in its proper wider perspective: “[T]he recent Bill and Hillary tag-team mag-control operation—and GQ's craven cave-in to it—suggests that the contagion, the plague of fawning-for-access journalism, has now spread to politics, with Bill and Hillary playing the role of Brad and Angelina.”

Rosenbaum writes: “Of course, any editor with a backbone would say, "Thank you, your crude effort to kill this story will be included in the story. Goodbye."

“Instead, the GQ editor killed the story. Profile in courage!

“What is even more reprehensible is that GQ's editor then began to claim—in a cringe-inducing, unconvincing way—that the visit by a Clinton consigliere had nothing to do with his killing the piece. Instead, unforgivably, he turned on his own reporter and in a spectacularly demeaning way suddenly claimed there were 'problems' with the story unrelated to Clintonian pressure.”

Rosenbaum cites what reporter Joshua Green said to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: "GQ told me it was a great story and a hell of a reporting job, but they didn't want to jeopardize their Clinton-in-Africa piece. GQ told me the Clintons were unhappy and threatened to revoke access to Bill Clinton if the Hillary story ran."

This is what GQ editor Jim Nelson said: "[T]he story didn't end up fully satisfying. ... I guarantee and promise you, if I'd have had a great Hillary piece, I would have run it."

“… I think the Clintons have the right to exercise as much control as they can. That's politics,” Rosenbaum writes. “But editors have the obligation to resist them. That's journalism. …

Rosenbaum rightly notes that resistance “will send a signal to politicians that magazine editors are whores for access who can be rolled at will." And he notes that such cowardly retreats as GQ's exact an "intangible cost: the cost of such behavior to whatever respect is left for the magazine industry from a public that increasingly thinks the mainstream media are in the pocket of the powerful.”

“It's time for magazine editors to fight this censorship-by-access. Because it's really self-censorship: the false belief that one can't run a probing story just because one is denied the anodyne 'exclusive' quotes and the super-special 'exclusive' photo of the powerful subject reclining on his or her patio. …”

“Given the cover appeal of the famous and the powerful, magazines will continue to assign profiles. The problem is that the spread of Hollywood access rules has blurred the line and blunted the journalism when it comes to profiles of people in power in politics and government, or people with private corporate power.

“Powerful figures who now think they can avoid thoroughgoing scrutiny by journalists just by withholding their participation might become a little concerned that magazines might then decide to hire more energetic and investigative-minded reporters (the sociopaths of doom) to look more deeply into their record than those who lazily settle for unexamined explanations and equivocations in person. …”

“I'm not saying journalism is war, but it's often a struggle between those with power who want to avoid or control scrutiny and those who feel scrutiny of the powerful is a public service.”

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