Access Journalism

In addition to being a political junkie, I am also a very old-school Apple fan. Every once in a while, those streams cross (such as now). In reading through an article in tech-focused (not at all political) website Gizmodo, I came across one of the clearest explanations I think I’ve yet heard about why “access journalism” is a flawed model. I’d love to just give the quote, but it requires just a bit of setup.

A couple of weeks ago (not long after the official launch of the iPad), tech website Gizmodo was offered a chance to buy what the anonymous seller told them was a prototype of the next-generation iPhone). The accompanying story was that a young software engineer from Apple had been at a silicon valley beer garden and had accidentally left the phone behind.

Gizmodo gets plenty of incorrect tips (often deliberate falsehoods) about new, unreleased products all the time. This time, after examining both the seller’s story and the phone itself, they bought it from him. You can read the first (and most substantial) of a number of posts Gizmodo did on the new phone, and why they’re virtually certain it’s the genuine article, here. It’s a pretty interesting story all on it’s own, even more so if, like me, you’re an Apple nerd. For what struck me in relation to the world of political journalism, join me after the fold.

One of the reasons this is such a big scoop is that it’s Apple. Not only are they currently arguably the hottest computing firm and the hottest mobile-device manufacturer in existence, for the last ten years (minimum), Apple’s secrecy about R&D and product development has been legendary, the highest in the industry. It’s so tight, in fact, that Apple doesn’t even tell the people who work in their retail outlets what the new product specs are prior to the day they actually start selling them.

So, with all that legendary secrecy on top of the fact that a pre-release scoop on any Apple product is a major coup for any website, magazine or even newspaper, the suspicions began to fly immediately. In Gizmodo’s forum and elsewhere, people voiced various opinions. Among these, the two moat common were a) that Gizmodo had been had by a clever huckster (i.e. that the phone was a fake), and b) that the phone was real, but it had been intentionally “leaked” by Apple to “juice” it’s upcoming launch of the phone. Gizmodo did an exhaustive technical run-down on the phone to demonstrate why they believed the first objection wasn’t true (and why they’d paid money for the device). But the second objection (that it was an intentional leak on Apple’s part or a collusion between Apple and Gizmodo) wasn’t as easily refuted by a simple overview of the technical specifications.

To make the case that they had neither colluded with Apple nor been an unwitting pawn of a clever leak on Apple’s part, Gizmodo wrote a post answering the “leak” charge which began by reminding their readers of Apple’s legendary history of secrecy. They went on to argue that Apple has a history of “cutting off” journalists or even whole publications who upset them, denying them further access to the company at all. Then, in the third section the post, entitled “access journalism isn’t,” they wrote the following:

The very reason this [threatening to cut off journalists’ access] works for Apple is their legendary secrecy. By keeping their communication channels completely closed, they have leverage over those to whom they give access. I certainly don’t think it’s enough leverage to guarantee a positive review of a product but it’s impossible to argue that “access journalism” has anything but a deleterious effect on the objectivity of journalists.

Journalists will often freak out if you point this out because you are implying they are ethically or psychologically compromised. Tough shit. As someone who also gets sneak previews from gadget companies and free gear to test, even if temporarily, I have to cop to it, too. We do our best not to let it influence us, but to deny there is any influence at all is disingenuous.

Access journalism doesn’t automatically corrupt the coverage, but it’s certainly not free from poison, either.

This is a point that gets debated and argued over ad nauseam in the political world. Bob Woodward is perhaps the modern poster-boy for what’s become known as the Washington version of access journalism, and he defends it vigorously, when challenged. Woodward contends that he could not have written the books he did write on the Bush administration without guaranteeing his sources anonymity in return for their stories. I have no problem with the concept of journalists protecting their sources in general, but it’s worth noting in Woodward’s case (and others) that his first book, Bush At War, was mostly a glowing insider’s account of a strong Presidency and an administration at the top of it’s game. Given its release date of July, 2003, Woodward was conducting his interviews for the book during the time period when some of the worst decisions and actions of the Bush administration were happening; the lead-up to the Iraq war (and shortly after the invasion and subsequent start of the insurgency).

Woodward’s following two Bush-based books were increasingly more questioning and even disapproving of the administration’s actions…but by that time, so much other reporting had been done, revealing the scope of Bush administration malfeasance and incompetence that it would have been impossible even for a journalist of Woodward’s stature to get away with a mostly-positive book about the administration without coming off as sycophantic or in-the-tank. But with release dates of mid-October, 2004 and September, 2007, respectively, for Woodward’s next two books in the “Bush At War” trilogy, it’s hard to deny that the book which arguably had the greatest impact on public perception of Bush during the years most critical to his reelection was the first book, Bush At War. George W. Bush’s reelection margin set a record for the thinnest margin ever by an incumbent President (obviously not counting the few incumbents like his father, who were actually defeated). Had Bush At War been as critical and skeptical of insider’s rosy claims as his later books, who knows what the country might have thought about giving Bush a second term in November of 2004?

No less a figure than Joseph Pulitzer himself once remarked that “a newspaper should have no friends.” Even if we stipulate that it is often impossible for reporters to obtain certain information without offering their sources anonymity and protection, the beltway and national media have, to a large degree, become not unlike the tech press when it comes to access: fearful that if they displease their sources too much, those sources will “cut off” their access to the decision-makers who give the journalists the tidbits of information that allow them to break news (or at least write articles which have more primary news value than, say, this one). Allowing sources to go anonymous or read to you from the happy-sheets turned out by the PR department is fine. Allowing either bedazzlement with one’s own closeness to power or fear of “losing access” to alter or lessen what should be a journalist’s natural skepticism and desire to make sure, above all else, that the story is accurate, is very definitely not fine

In tech journalism, it makes you look like a suck-up to high-flying companies, and maybe makes you look like a fool if the passage of time reveals that the company used you as a “useful idiot” and ancillary PR arm. In the world of political journalism, however, it might be the difference between invading another country and not invading. Journalists, many of them with very high name recognition and the rarest of pedigrees, will tell you that maintaining their access is critical to their being able to bring you the news. As this story and this writer from the world of tech remind us, though, such importance placed by journalists in maintaining access to movers and shakers above all else doesn’t come without a price of it’s own; a price we all pay.