On Monday, National Journal reporter James Oliphant emailed me with a question.
I'm working on a piece about the so-called liberal blogosphere or the progressive journalism wing or whatever you want to call it, asking the question whether the existence of liberal sites gives the WH a communications advantage and/or an incentive not to deal with the mainstream press.
I don't know if you self-identify that way or not, and I know you used to work the other side of the street at the Post, but would be interested in your insights if you have any spare time today.
I asked for a number but didn't end up calling it, as (you can ask Will Dobson how typical this is) I tried and failed not to blow a deadline. Looking back, I should have just given my phone number or solicited email questions, because Oliphant ended up writing the piece without my input. Like the saying goes, you're either a source or a target, and in this piece I was lumped in with the people who provided "plenty of back-up" when Jay Carney was tasked with explaining away the Benghazi emails obtained by Judicial Watch. "He had Slate's David Weigel, along with The Washington Post's Plum Line blog, debunking any claim that the new email was a 'smoking gun,' " writes Oliphant.
Indeed, I was dismissive of the smoking-gun-ness of the Ben Rhodes email, based on my own reading of previously released documents. Oliphant doesn't attempt to grapple with the facts of the post, and interestingly, Oliphant didn't quote the first sentence of my follow-up: "It's hard to defend Jay Carney, or the institution of the White House press secretary in general." Oliphant mentions that the White House coms team "holds off-the-record briefings, sometimes with Obama in the room, for select progressive bloggers from outlets such as TPM and ThinkProgress." I do appeciate the "such as," because I've never been invited to such a briefing, and would tell readers if I were.* I just talk to White House spokespeople, as do many reporters in D.C.
But I don't want to get bogged down. The whole piece is a bizarre jumble that covers progressive bloggers and writers as if they are an Obama-era innovation, and as if they don't do reporting outside the guidelines of the White House. The idea that a reasonable person who consults sources might not think the Rhodes email was explosive is dismissed as part of a White House pushback, even though Oliphant does not prove that anyone who writes about the email was talking to the White House. The natural conservative response might be, as John Podhoretz says on Twitter, "you don't have to be at an official 'messaging meeting' to get the message." But you could say the same of any conservative who agreed with what John Boehner and Trey Gowdy have said about Benghazi, couldn't you?
There's definitely an interesting, reported piece to be written about how the White House reaches out to opinion writers, or bloggers, or liberal-leaning reporters. This isn't that piece. In lieu of evidence that would reveal something damning about the White House outreach—like, say, getting the progressive sphere to run with a provable lie, or getting the details of what is discussed in the White House briefings, or whether it pushed someone like Ezra Klein to write a story he wouldn't have otherwise, or having the president call on a safe, planted blogger for an easy question—Oliphant quotes "one former liberal blogger" who insists that "the incentives are to play ball, not to speak truth to power. More clicks. More action. Partisanship drives clicks."
Right. That definitely explains why Ezra Klein never wrote a post with a title like "Five Thoughts on the Obamacare Disaster," or why I'd never contradict the current Democratic hectoring about the Benghazi select committee by interviewing people who know Rep. Trey Gowdy and coming out with a mostly positive profile.
Actually, sarcasm aside, it explains why a National Journal White House reporter would write a beat-sweetener like this. The White House press corps gets less and less access, which is criminal, and there's plenty of bitterness to go around when it's discovered that a progressive-leaning reporter was invited to more off-the-record meetings than a studiously nonideological reporter. It's turf-protection. And the way it's written, with its lazy confirmation of conservative theories about the lefty media, it might even get a Drudge link!
Not that a real reporter would be more interested in clicks than in speaking truth to power.
UPDATE: And here's that Drudge link!
*That may be why I'm not invited.