I didn’t think much of accusations “against” news columnist Ezra Klein that he had briefed some Senate Democratic aides. I thought that, being a pundit, Klein did that kind of thing all the time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong about a reporter talking to a couple of Senate aides curious to hear how certain messages are playing out in a reporter’s mind, or for a reporter to sit in on a policy discussion of staffers.
But then Klein’s scattered and mealymouthed response left me scratching my head, and I wonder whether his editors are scratching their heads too. And it's probably because his response means that he is continuing the charade of being some kind of objective news reporter, a charade the Post's editors are happy to allow considering how they portray him.
You see, under Jen Rubin's name at the Washington Post, we have this:
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective. She covers a range of domestic and foreign policy issues and provides insight into the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
She's not only reporting opinion from a conservative perspective, she's also providing insight into the conservative movement and the Republican Party! If we could only cram the word "conservative" in there one more time.
Klein on the other hand:
Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at the Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC and Bloomberg. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system that’s constantly screwing it up. He really likes graphs...
So, while Rubin is conspicuously called out as the conservative, no such disclaimer is offered for Klein. And working for his "WonkBlog" are people described as reporters, lending credence to the fantasy that Klein's work is objective. Which it ain't.
Last week, Betsy Rothstein of FishbowlDC quoted an anonymous Senate aide who claimed that Klein “briefed” him and a group of Senate democratic chiefs of staff for 30 minutes about the supercommittee. Fishbowl takes anonymous tips and reports the living tar out of them, to a degree that some DC journalists find annoying (and others find amusing). One of the high-level Democratic aides said that “while people ‘enjoyed it’ and gave it ‘positive reviews’ this sort of thing is far from typical.”
Klein usually refrains from responding to posts by Rothstein, so it was especially strange to see him do so here. What he could have said was “This anonymous source is unreliable.” But Klein actually verified the story, meaning that the source is reliable on at least one count:
I did go speak with a bunch of Senate Democratic chiefs of staff. They said they occasionally invite journalists in to chat, and we agreed I would attend for a free-ranging discussion -- I wasn’t delivering a presentation, much less a briefing on the supercommittee. In fact, the supercommittee wasn’t a big part of the discussion. The focus was much more on the 2012 race and Congress’s low approval ratings. Their prior meeting had run late, so we only talked for 30 minutes or so.
Everything in this statement conveys that he did, in fact, brief some Democratic Senate chiefs of staff, except he would prefer to use the less suggestive phrase “free-ranging discussion.” It’s an important distinction for Klein, I think, because “briefings” suggest that familiar Tom Clancy atmosphere where a single policy scholar, armed only with a Powerpoint presentation that includes a blast radius and a death count, is able to avert a global crisis merely by saying, “Mr. President, we’ve got to do something.”
Briefings can also be "free-ranging discussions." If you spend any amount of time talking to people who want to know what you know, it's not ridiculous to call it a briefing. He had just such a meeting with a group of very important Washington people. People whose water he carries on the regular.
I’d love to get Klein’s thoughts on the ethics of this. Again, I don’t think he did anything wrong except for wackiness of his post – I’d think he’d be doing something wrong in turning down the opportunity. But if he thinks it’s so important to clarify what’s okay and what’s not okay, let’s get into the weeds:
- If you’re a senate staffer – and not just a staffer, but the chief of staff to a senator, of which there are only 100 -- and need to explain something to a reporter, you don’t arrange a free-ranging discussion with several people and a reporter. You yourself set up an appointment with the reporter you’d like to reach, like the appointments Klein says he usually has. Why were several Senate Democrat chiefs of staff gathered in a single room for an off-the-record free-ranging discussion?
(Usually, when I am the only journalist invited to speak to a bunch of people who usually talk to each other and work together, I worry that I’m expected to give a talk, and get a bit of anxiety over public speaking. And when that happens, depending on whether I actually have something to say, I pass the buck and open with… wait for it…. “I’m hoping to have more of a free-ranging discussion here…”)
- In saying “their prior meeting had run late, so we only talked for 30 minutes or so,” Klein suggests that he expected to have a full hour or more. Again, with this particularly large and important group of Senate staffers who had been, collectively, in “another meeting.” Was this part of a series of meetings with reporters? Had Klein sat in on those? Was he initially invited to speak, but had to open things up given the short amount of time?
- The impending news at the time of the meeting was the failure of the supercommittee, and that didn’t dominate discussion? Instead it was merely the unpopularity of Congress heading into the election? Isn’t that striking? During the mere 30 minutes Klein had with several top level aides, he says he spent a minimal amount of time on the issue. Isn’t that weird considering his latest Bloomberg column which explains that it’s the staffers who really do all the law-making on the Hill? (As Mickey Kaus writes, "It’s not like Klein turned around and wrote a one-sided post, “In praise of congressional staff.” … Oh.")
- Talking to Senate aides, even in a group, is pretty useful for a journalist, it’s just that it’s hard to lock down that kind of access. Fortunately for Klein, he writes for the Washington Post. Which makes it even stranger: Klein has access to all of these people individually. Why does he need to talk to all of them at once? Unless… he’s saying something to all of them?
- Most importantly, if Rothstein’s source was telling the truth about there being a meeting, then this quote needs to be addressed: “‘It was kind of weird,’ said a longtime Senate Democratic aide, explaining that while people ‘enjoyed it’ and gave it ‘positive reviews’ this sort of thing is far from typical.” Enjoyed what? How is it not typical? Why was it weird?
I’m sensitive to this mealy-mouthed denial because when last people attempted to use communication between Ezra and his colleagues (on Journolist) to “coordinate,” Klein said he’d rather just have a “discussion.” Yet even if it wasn’t a bulletpointed to-do list, as many conservatives suggested, there’s no denying that such “discussions” breed certain kinds of “coordination.”
Here’s what he said when asked by then senior editor of Harper’s, Luke Mitchell, whether it would be possible to use the list to coordinate:
“Open question: Would it be a good use of this list to co-ordinate [sic] a message of the week along the lines of the GOP? Or is that too loathsome? It certainly sounds loathsome. But so does losing!”
Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, the founder of Journolist, quickly jumped in: “Nope, no message coordination. I’m not even sure that would be legal. This is a discussion list, though, and I want it to retain that character,” he wrote.
Coordination? Briefing? Free-ranging discussion? They’re all very, very different things. Obviously. But remember! Ezra is the objective columnist. Jen Rubin is the partisan.
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