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How Close is Too Close For Political Reporters?

For political reporters, the relationship with sources can be a tricky game. Reporters are expected to hold elected officials accountable, but require a certain level of access in order to get any sort of response from them.

CNN’s Ed Henry drew some attention from media observers when he tweeted photos from a barbecue hosted by Vice President Joe Biden. The photos and video, one of which Henry jokingly tagged as “exclusive” showed members of the Washington press corp mingling with Biden and other White House officials.

Henry appeared on NPR’s “On The Media” to discuss the incident:

The notion that we’re working 24/7, holding their feet to fire every single second, and you can’t actually stop to have a conversation or, God forbid, go to the vice president’s house, somehow democracy is compromised – I think people have to look at the whole picture.

And if you look, for example, at what I do on a daily basis with Robert Gibbs in the briefing room at the White House, I hardly think that Robert Gibbs thinks that I give him an easy time or that going to a White House holiday party with the president, which pretty much everyone in the White House press corps and a lot of people from New York and other cities who comment on politics, etc., show up for those parties too, and I hardly think that they’re compromised.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen also mentioned Henry in a column examining “the actual ideology of the American press.” Rosen mentions an exchange Henry had with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs last year.

It delights Ed Henry to provoke these responses. He has produced a moment of theater that gets people “on both sides” (a magic phrase in pro journalism) cheering and jeering. He gets a warm glow from being “slapped down” by Obama because you only get slapped if you ask a tough question, inconveniencing the power holder in his effort to sell the nation on an image of mastery. (“Tough” is another universal term of praise in newsrooms.)

His Democratic friends love it because Obama showed a flash of anger. Take that, Ed! His Republican friends love it because Henry annoyed Obama. Way to go, Ed! Ed loves it because the narcissistic reactions of both sides prove how mature and professional and detached he is: just doing my job, folks. He has friends on both sides but in his mind he is friend to neither.

While Henry was the most recent target of criticism, nearly every member of the White House press corp, from ABC’s Jake Tapper to NBC’s Chuck Todd, have been accused of similar shenanigans.

Still, the “On the Media” discussion and Rosen’s thoughtful essay raise some important questions. Is access to politicians and their staffs a necessary evil? or could political reporters do their jobs from afar?

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