Newsrooms depend on beat reporting – assigning reporters to specific subject areas. And beat reporting depends on sources – sources some reporters won’t want to cross. Journalism professor Edward Wasserman argues the system is inherently corrupt.
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BOB GARFIELD: If you're looking for media culprits in the Valerie Plame affair, maybe the answer isn't to blame individuals but rather the very structures of journalism itself. As the convolutions of the Plame case reveal, the intertwined relationships on reporting beats inside the Beltway converged to obscure truth rather than reveal it.
To journalism professor Edward Wasserman, this is the fault of the beat system itself. Writing in The Miami Herald, Wasserman argued that, quote, "If you deliberately set out to invent an arrangement less conducive to tough adversarial reporting, it would be hard to beat beats." He joins us now. Ed, welcome to the show.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: Hi, Bob, nice to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: In your column, you cite a local reporter on the police beat who gets wind of police misconduct. And she knows the story is good, but she also knows that pursuing it could limit her future access on the police beat. In this case, you suggest that her ability to report is damaged by her assignment to that beat.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: Right. And I also suggested that that is a normal conflict that is really embedded in the nature of beats. Particularly you describe beats as being a matter of subject matter specialization, and that's one way of looking at it. It's also important to note that many, many beats are institution-specific.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you cite some examples of times when reporters too immersed in those institutions were unable to cover their beats properly?
EDWARD WASSERMAN: Well, I think that most reporters who have covered beats will tell you that over time, they create a store, repository of stories that they can't tell. I mean, what do you do when you're the White House reporter and you know that the president falls asleep during cabinet meetings? Well, you know, that's a terrific story. The American public would like to know that. And you also realize that your longevity as a White House reporter is going to be severely shortened once you've written that story.
And the next thing you know, no matter how supportive your editors are and no matter how pleased you are that you've broken that story, over the next few weeks, when all of your rivals are getting the leaks and the interesting plants and stories and are beating your pants off on that beat, they're going to start to think about moving you off the beat.
BOB GARFIELD: So structurally we're talking about an inevitable conflict of interest. The more immersed you get in your beat, the more likely you'll run across stories that you can't report lest you lose your beat.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: That's exactly right, Bob. I mean, I got interested in this subject because I teach journalism ethics, and one of my professional interests is conflicts of interest. And it struck me as notable that we spend a lot of time anguishing over whether reporters should take a cup of coffee from a source or accept a free ride on an airplane in order to cover a story. And we don't look at the kind of systematic, routine, day-in-and-day-out benefit that reporters derive from having sources who are predisposed in their favor.
Most conflicts, you say, well, if you can't avoid them, then disclose them. And here's a conflict you can neither avoid nor really disclose.
BOB GARFIELD: Fair enough; it is easy to see how a reporter can be compromised by being too close to his or her sources. And too much time on the beat can result in the reporter going native, like the State Department reporter who takes to wearing tweed and smoking a pipe, for example.
But how do those risks trump the innumerable advantages of beat reporting – I mean, the development of sources, the ability to distinguish between the story and a non-story, and just generally the accumulation of expertise that comes with experience?
EDWARD WASSERMAN: Well, sure. But look – historically, beats didn't arise in order to enable reporters to develop expertise. They arose as a way to get routine information out of powerful and important institutions and into the public sphere. And it was advantageous for the institutions towards the end of the 19th century to establish regular feeds of information to the press. It was advantageous to the sort of burgeoning commercial press to have reliable sources of information of some interest to their publics.
Expertise came later. And there's no particular reason why expertise has to be all bound up in covering a particular institution. General circulation papers will have investigations units, they'll have project reporters, they'll have general assignment reporters. These are people that do not have specific beats, except inasmuch as they develop passions and interests and expertise in areas and go out looking for the very best stories they can find that dovetail with those interests.
BOB GARFIELD: And in support of your argument, two of the greatest stories in the history of American journalism, the uncovering of the My Lai massacre and then the big daddy of them all, Watergate, were broken not by beat reporters but essentially by outsiders. So, you know, those are two for you. But arrayed against you are most everything else.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: Look, when I say scrap the beat system, it's a way to have a 700-word column to write, and I'm trying to call attention to a problem -
BOB GARFIELD: Ah-hah!
EDWARD WASSERMAN: - where I think it's an endemic conflict of interest that reporters have to deal with, and I think it should be out there in the open. I think that reporters should be asked routinely, what is the best story you know about that you can't write, and tell me why you're not writing it.
I think reporters should be encouraged to talk about the conflict they have in dealing with their sources and the kinds of accommodations they're making. Because these are critical negotiations that are underway that affect the quality of information that the public gets.
BOB GARFIELD: All right Ed, thanks so much for joining us.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: My pleasure Bob, good talking with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Edward Wasserman is the Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia