When journalists sell their integrity to politicians

Ever wonder where some big-name political reporters get their analysis and scoops?

Judging by emails pried from the State Department, they buy it from the politicians they cover by selling their integrity.

In a damning post today, Gawker uncovered a series of emails between The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder and Clinton spokesperson Philippe Reines.

Ambinder asks for an advance copy of a 2009 speech, Reines provides it with conditions that any respectable journalist would — or at the very least: should — answer with a string of obscenities.

Ambinder let the Clinton aide write his lede.

When you think of President Obama’s foreign policy, think of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That’s the message behind a muscular speech that Clinton is set to deliver today to the Council on Foreign Relations. The staging gives a clue to its purpose: seated in front of Clinton, subordinate to Clinton, in the first row, will be three potentially rival power centers: envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, and National Security Council senior director Dennis Ross.

In a phone interview with Gawker today, Ambinder takes responsibility for what he calls “transactional journalism.”

It made me uncomfortable then, and it makes me uncomfortable today. And when I look at that email record, it is a reminder to me of why I moved away from all that. The Atlantic, to their credit, never pushed me to do that, to turn into a scoop factory. In the fullness of time, any journalist or writer who is confronted by the prospect, or gets in the situation where their journalism begins to feel transactional, should listen to their gut feeling and push away from that.

Being scrupulous at all times will not help you get all the scoops, but it will help you sleep at night. At no point at The Atlantic did I ever feel the pressure to make transactional journalism the norm.

First of all, it’s not journalism. Ambinder, who now calls himself a “content strategist,” implies that the ethical problem posed was a complicated one. It’s not. You don’t let the people you’re covering write your stories.