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.

  • Gary F

    Bob, does Journalist still exist? If not, what replaced it?

    • Journalism? Sure. As someone explained on Twitter. The big shots play by different rules. Kind of like Sid .

      • Gary F
        • Huh. Never heard of it. I used to moderate the old CompuServe J-Forum back in the day (it’s actually how i got recruited to Minnesota). When you’re paying 25-cents a minute connection time, it was remarkable how focused a conversation could be.

  • Fred, Just Fred

    Bad enough to sell your integrity for a scoop, but it looks like much of our news media does it for nothing more than the love of the cause.

  • Mike Worcester

    It seems that stories like this just feed into the cynicism the public feels towards “journalists”. I put that word in quotes because I wonder if anyone truly knows what its definition is anymore. Social media and the The Interwebz have so blurred lines and obliterated what we used to think of as journalistic standards that it is difficult to find that clear distinction any more.

    This blog being the exception of course 🙂

  • Jason Mock

    I don’t know If I should be more disappointed in the journalists “selling” their integrity, or the low, low prices they seem to be able to command for it. To paraphrase Roger Waters, “Each man has his price, but yours was pretty low.”