Monday, July 18, 2011
In bed with the enemy
Years ago I had a good friend and colleague, one quite a bit higher up the editorial ladder from my modest rung, who refused to attend social events involving politicians or public servants of any kind. As we went out the door to hoist one with a local alderman or cop, he'd shake his head and hang back.
"You don't socialize with the people you cover," he'd say when pressed.
Some of us thought he was being needlessly priggish, perhaps just covering for an innate shyness, an inability to relate to others outside the office. It's important, we journos told ourselves, to know our subjects fully, and to do so we need to experience their company in friendly and relaxed surroundings. We need to see them when they let their hair down.
On the other hand, every time I read about Washington journalists hanging out after hours with Capitol Hill pols and federal government functionaries, even to throwing huge parties for them, I've wondered about that wisdom. How honest and objective can a journalist be if he's drinking buddies with the people he's writing about? Can he throw a chum under the bus for the sake of truth and enlightenment if it should come to that?
Over the last few days, as revelation after revelation has burst in London of News Corporation writers and editors partying with Scotland Yard honchos and members of Parliament (even at their country houses) during the years in which a titanic phone hacking scandal struggled to emerge from a massive cover-up, I kept thinking of my old colleague.
Maybe he wasn't so shy and stiff-necked, after all. Maybe he was smarter than the rest of us. Surely he was prescient.