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WaPo’s Kurtz Questions Baker on ‘Rahmism’ Sourcing

It’s not everyday that a writer reveals intricate details about his relationship with a key source in a story. Or, that he writes that a source “declined to talk to me on the record” – implying to some readers that the source sang in some fashion.

On Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” WaPo’s Howard Kurtz asked NYT Peter Baker about his use of sourcing in a recent magazine cover story on White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Kurtz: I want to ask Peter this last question, you write that “Emanuel declined to talk to me on the record.” What should we read into that?
Baker: “Exactly what it says,” he said, with a laugh of surprise at the question.

Baker wrote in his story: “Emanuel (who declined to talk to me on the record for this article) generally shrugs off most of the commentary, scorning the armchair critics who haven’t spent time in the White House or Congress actually trying to accomplish something.”

As with most reporters, it’s a given, a cardinal rule of the trade that Baker will never fess up to how much they spoke or what they spoke about. Atypical, however, are Baker’s in-depth remarks in his profile regarding his relationship to Emanuel over the years.

Julie Moos, director of Poynteronline, said there are a variety of things to infer by the way Baker reported this story. “Maybe that was part of the deal and that, in fact, what Rahm Emanuel wanted to communicate was that he didn’t officially cooperate but that unofficially, he did,” she told FishbowlDC. “You don’t know motives and you don’t know specific nature of the relationship and what you have here is an implication.”

She suggested that journalism is shifting in the areas of transparency and objectivity. “The way the sourcing was handled [in Baker's story] was maybe in that new gray area because in the traditional journalistic idea of objectivity is there is no conflict of interest, no relationship between the source and the reporter other than information,” she said. “That’s something we value. Well, obviously as journalism is evolving there are people who disagree, [who believe] that it’s preferable for journalists to be transparent about any prejudices and not have any prejudices in their reporting. In some cases, does transparency give you all the credibility you need? For some audiences, that increases your credibility, for some audiences it decreases your credibility.”

An excerpt:
“Like a lot of reporters, I met Emanuel in the 1990s when he was at the Clinton White House. He was then, as now, aggressive, relentless and driven. He always had a pithy attack line on Republicans to share or a scooplet on some modest forthcoming presidential initiative to peddle. He liked reporters and understood what made a good story. he also understood that the relationships he was building were good for him.”

After leaving the White House, Baker said Emanuel kept up their relationship. “Along the way, he stayed in touch, calling me unsolicited to trade gossip or point something out about George W. Bush’s White House that he thought deserved more scrutiny from the news media,” he wrote. “He managed to get around so much that an editor at a major newspaper at the time recalled finding Emanuel’s name on the expense account of virtually every reporter covering Washington for that paper.”

In the next graph, Baker writes, “Just a few weeks before the election, we met for one of those expense-account dinners, and he flatly rejected any suggestion that he might become chief of staff.” (So was Baker referring to his own paper when reporting about the bureau’s bevy of expense account dinners with Emanuel?)

Moos said readers prefer transparency. “Sometimes it has to do with not just sourcing but funding,” she said. “So in a story about a story between vaccines and autism, you want to know if research was funded by a pharmaceutical company so you can assess the information yourself. Sourcing has the same value. It helps readers judge the information, whether there was any ulterior motive. Especially in political stories there are often reasons to share information that have little to do with public enlightenment.”

Like Emanuel to Baker, the NYT writer declined to talk to me on the record for this story about his sourcing, except to say, “I will let the story speak for itself.”

For anyone who missed it, read Baker’s story here.

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