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Chuck Todd Lunges at BuzzFeed Over PBS Embargo Fiasco

We can see it now. The 10 angry facial expressions of NBC Political Director Chuck Todd. The 7 safari animals that most resemble Chuck Todd. Chuck Todd with a cornucopia of mustaches and facial hair ensembles — which one is best? Oh wait — in May of last year they already ran a listicle on Chuck Todd’s goatee on everybody.

The old-school newsman is at odds with BuzzFeed this morning. The last 18 hours has been a flurry of controversy ever since BuzzFeed butchered an embargo set by PBS on President Obama‘s appearance on “The Charlie Rose Show” last night. The embargo was set for 11 p.m. BuzzFeed broke it and ran a preliminary transcript of the interview at 3:45 p.m. And soon, others such as WaPo, which sought permission from PBS to break the embargo after BuzzFeed did, followed.

Was BuzzFeed in the wrong? Will Todd get over it and should he?

“We take agreements with sources very seriously. In this case, there wasn’t one,” BuzzFeed Political Editor McKay Coppins told FishbowlDC early this morning. When pressed, he added, “An embargo is an agreement, not a command.”

Todd aggressively disagreed. “Come on. It’s a crappy thing to do to PBS,” he wrote on Twitter last night. “It’s Charlie Rose’s interview. Not mine. Not BuzzFeed’s. The entire thing airs tonight.”

He went deep with it, talking about honor and manners. “This is not a legal dispute,” he wrote. “It’s about basic manners … it’s about whether there’s any honor left.” He spoke of old, worn established media rules. “Many news orgs are respecting PBS 11 p.m. ET embargo on the Rose POTUS interview. Some have chosen to ignore. Who changed the ‘rules?’ Wow, so in the obsessive world of trying to get clicks, we have news orgs no longer respecting embargoes. Can we have some rules respected?”

Todd has had a mostly warm relationship with BuzzFeed and has had the outlet’s reporters on his program, MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown.” But he has bristled at the name, saying repeatedly that he doesn’t like it. In November of last year, theGrio.com‘s Perry Bacon praised BuzzFeed on “The Daily Rundown” and Todd cracked, “I’m not crazy about the name. I agree, I agree, the work is good, but the name sort of bothers me. BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed? Sounds like electroshock [unintelligible word] therapy.”

Others quickly jumped on Todd’s embargo bandwagon. TIME‘s Mark Halperin wrote on Twitter, “history + digital + fast food, hit-and-run culture. Forward an embargoed email to your non-pro cousin, have ‘em email back. Presto.” Mark H. Anbinder, contributing editor at TidBITS, added, “There’s a generation of reporters (I hesitate to say ‘journalists’) without proper training who don’t know what an embargo is.” And James David Dickson, op-ed editor for The Detroit News, answered Todd’s thoughts on honor, saying, “You live in Washington and ask if ‘there’s any honor left’ No, Chuck. There isn’t.”

But even those with time in the business don’t all agree with that. Commentary‘s John Podhoretz, among others at BuzzFeed, remarked that no agreement existed, and Todd argued that the “golden rule applies.” Still, Podhoretz insisted, “If PBS sends out transcripts that simply state there’s an embargo, no agreement exists on embargo.”

Which happens to be BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith‘s take on off-the-record interviews. Ever since his days of manning a blog at Politico, he has consistently vocalized his staunch belief that they are agreements to be forged, not assumptions. “Is this like implied off the record?” he asked on Twitter last night. Coppins backed him, saying, “Is it that crazy? I see the golden rule arg, but if we never agreed to an embargo, why are we bound?”

Officially bound or not, a longtime Washington editor declared BuzzFeed “wrong” and had this ominous thought: “What BuzzFeed did was wrong, and they will pay the price by not getting embargoed transcripts in the future. There has to be an agreement for speaking on background or off the record. The same principle doesn’t apply to embargoes.” And Eric Koch, a Democratic strategist and flack who formerly worked on Capitol Hill, warned, “Issue is flacks (like me) will probably just stop sending stuff out and giving people time to plan.”

With that very real prospect in site, some scribes are not pleased by this apparent new way of doing things. A political reporter who spoke to FishbowlDC anonymously said it was a “pretty shitty” thing for BuzzFeed to do.

“BuzzFeed’s argument is that they never agreed to the embargo, which is true,” the political journalist told FishbowlDC. “In other words, they had no actual responsibility to abide by it. But if outlets start breaking embargoes like this, it means PR folks will either not send out embargoed stuff or be forced to get every outlet to agree to the embargo in advance. Which either means we won’t get embargoed stuff (which is helpful) or it’s a huge pain for PR folks. In other words, BuzzFeed is ruining it for the rest of us because they wanted a Drudge hit. They may not have done anything wrong, but they certainly did something pretty shitty. Look, I understand that journalists are a whiny bunch and that nobody outside of our little community cares about embargoes, but it’s just in poor taste and makes everything a little bit more difficult for everyone else.” 

Another Washington reporter, however, took issue with PBS and Todd, not BuzzFeed.

“Embargos, like agreements to be “off the record” or “on background” are agreed beforehand by both parties. In this case PBS was spraying around emails with a transcript with a unilateral declaration that the material was embargoed. The interview was a softball – PR for President Obama. And PBS wanted the rest of the media to do PR for PBS by having neatly-packaged stories ready to go once it was broadcast. Well, Buzzfeed may be the annoying, snotty-nosed new kid on the block but I don’t see why any of us should be doing PR for PBS or President Obama. Washington is full of these cozy little insider rules designed to keep journalistic gods like NBC’s Chuck Todd separate from mere mortals. To me, the most revealing thing was Todd referring to the interview as a PBS “scoop”. A cozy interview with President Obama is not a scoop. It’s a Washington transaction. Todd’s complaint strikes me as a transaction too. I wonder what reward he’ll get from the White House press office for scolding impertinent little Buzzfeed on President Obama’s behalf?”

And still another journalist questions the necessity of embargoes.

“I am curious to hear Buzzfeed’s explanation for this. We should honor embargoes, but frankly they get harder to enforce and justify, with all news now living on the Internet. Increasingly, an embargo feels like an old way to manipulate and control coverage.”

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