Beat the Press

Beat the Press

Beat the Press

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 25 2011 9:14 AM

Beat the Press

Keach Hagey welds together a few ongoing storylines and sees a pattern: Conservative blogs and news sites are going after reporters who seem to be giving aid and comfort to Occupy Wall Street. The last example, which hasn't drawn too much attention yet, is a video of New York Times stringer Natasha Lennard on a panel about #OWS, at which she muses about movement ideas and strategy. Is it damning? Having seen a lot of reporters perform on panels (having been one a few times) I don't see it, but I do see the pattern.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for the Washington Post. 

Three examples.

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In the first week of October, The Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen published a scoop about an old rock at Rick Perry's childhood campground with an outdated, racist name. At RedState.com, lawyer Mike Robinson took the occasion to inform readers of McCrummen's very petty crime record, mostly consisting of speeding tickets. (Disclosure: I've paid a speeding ticket and been caught by two speeding-tracking cameras this year alone, so this doesn't really move me.) "It is pretty easy to throw mud on someone even if they didn’t do anything truly wrong," he wrote. After Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote up the minor discrepancies in Marco Rubio's biography, RedState's Erick Erickson informed readers that Roig-Franzia had once gotten into a showy fight with his editor, and that he was "an apologist for the Cuban communist regime and a hater of the Catholic church."

In both cases, a reporter had written something the bloggers didn't like, so the hunt was on to prove he/she was unethical, untrustworthy. Look at the latest James O'Keefe expose, too. Earlier this month, Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein got a tip about fishy phone calls coming in to the Economic Policy Institute, people claiming to be union members asking if they could get favorable studies from the think tank. According to Stein, two of the people reached said no. According to O'Keefe's eventual report, one professor who does work with the think tank, Jeffrey Keefe -- he teaches at O'Keefe's alma mater, Rutgers -- did say that someone buying a study could get it killed, even though the buyer would have to pay for the work anyway. But O'Keefe's sting video focused half of its attention on Keefe, and the other half on Stein. A reporter recorded a conversation with Dale Maharidge, a reporter who'd taught Stein at Columbia Journalism School. "He goes out drinking at night with people," said Maharidge. "You get some booze in people and suddenly the stories floooow." O'Keefe then called Stein and asked him if he "booze[s] up] his sources; Stein denied it.

Maharidge was describing a fact of life in reporting -- journalists socialize with sources (and with each other) and knock back drinks. What was so controversial about it? Beats me. One of O'Keefe's previous stings involved a videographer sharing a drink* with a teacher and recording what she told him. That's some level of magnitude fishier than what Maharidge described -- reporters and sources drinking, no one taping the unvarnished thoughts. There's a difference between "boozing up" someone and "getting some booze in people" -- the first description makes it sound like one person is getting boozed and the other's taking notes. Stein's not commenting, but Maharidge finds the situation hilarious.

"The kid was nervous and I chalked it up to his being young," Maharidge told me. "Now I know why he was nervous. I will tell him this: I do hope he takes my advice and stops doing the kind of chickenshit stunt that he pulled. What a waste of his time and life -- and of my time. I laughed my ass off when I saw the piece. It's actually worth watching as parody -- if your readers want a laugh. Sorry kid, if that's 'gotcha journalism,' you have to do better. I would have said the same thing if he'd whipped out a camera and asked me on the record."

Stein gets off unscathed, but the pattern continues -- if a reporter is seen to be taking one partisan's side of a story, his life is fair game.

*CORRECTION: I was going off an incorrect version of this story. The teacher bought her own drink.

David Weigel is a reporter for the Washington Post.