Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Washington Correspondents Should Learn A Thing Or Two From Judy Miller

Yesterday, Ryan Ver Berkmoes wrote to Romenesko about why it's time to pull the plug on the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Calling it "bloated" and "silly," Ver Berkmoes put his take on an independent press succinctly when he said, "I don't want to have the warm moment when he showed me the picture of his kids pop into my head as I write about his incompetence or corruption."

I've been thinking a lot about ethics lately (thanks, Columbia) and this letter is really indicative of the conflict a reporter can have between work life and personal life.

Ver Berkmoes writes: "The organization that purports to represent the journalists covering the most powerful branch of government seems determined to show its chumminess with said branch of government."

While I don't necessarily agree that all the seasoned journalists who attend were and are not "aggressive journalists who would relish a chance at the White House beat," I do think the very existence of the dinner is a huge potential conflict of interest.

(As an aside, I did think last year's was very, very funny. But that's not the topic at hand.)

I agree with Ver Berkmoes. Can the dinner. Pull the plug. Call off the caterers, cut the newsfeed and let it fade without a fight.

Just like news organizations created awards for themselves so as not to cater to outside interests, the press should keep the same boundaries on Capitol Hill. Yes, many correspondents get close with people working in Washington. It's inevitable; we're human. And maybe when someone's embedded too long and their judgment is clouded they should be removed, like a soldier.

But the very existence of the dinner and its invitees - "media luminaries" and "b-level starlets" and "political appointees" - simply does not adhere to the basic tenets of a free press. It's much like when FCC chairman Kevin Martin showed up "in bed" with a lobbyist and an XM radio exec in a spread in Details magazine - it was bad taste, bad ethics and altogether shouldn't have happened.

The modern, free press is supposed to be a Fourth Estate, not an amoebic version of the existing three posing as gentle opposition. Seeing this coverage on TV (or the Internet), I'm afraid, gives this perception, no matter the reality. And we all know how much of a role 'perception' plays in evaluating the diligence, and subsequently the success, of the press.

So I agree: we shouldn't take a position at all. There is no need for a pat on the back of Washington correspondents when there are plenty more reporters around the globe covering the far-flung and the mundane without credit beyond a byline or an award. Should they be commended? Absolutely. But not in collaboration with the subjects they cover.

In becoming a journalist, seeing your article on the page is supposed to be the big award. Supposedly.

But in all honesty, we should aspire more to be the nameless, faceless reporter covering the dinner instead of the recognizable anchor attending it. Because when you've become a part of the story, you're no longer a reporter for it. Your vision is clouded. And your tour of duty is running out - even if it's lubricated with expensive cocktails.

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