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Making Sausage: A Reporter's Emails

Mike DeBonis, the Loose Lips columnist at the Washington City Paper, was frank with his readers about why he sought and published the juiciest emails traded by Washington Post city hall reporter David Nakamura and Mayor Adrian Fenty's communications director, Carrie Brooks:

He wanted a holy cow story, of course, and he wanted also "to soothe the bruised reporter egos of LL [Loose Lips] and his reporter colleagues," whom Nakamura has scooped again and again on stories about Mayor Fenty.

So DeBonis filed a Freedom of Information act request with the D.C. government and got himself a big pile of emails, some of which make Nakamura look like exactly what he is: A beat reporter working his sources, making nice, playing tough, exchanging information, winning cooperation.

Read the emails raw, and some may seem embarrassing to this newspaper. Here's the reporter commiserating with the mayor's spokesman about the picky questions civic gadfly Dorothy Brizill poses at mayoral news conferences (""Fenty is really putting [Brizill] in her place....priceless!") And here's the reporter boasting that he somehow got a Post editorial writer not to write about what a bad choice the mayor was making in picking the new schools superintendent ("jo-ann armao was about to crush you guys for picking [Rudy] crew. i called off the attack...")

As the City Paper writes it, Nakamura may appear to be in cahoots with the mayor's office in managing the news. But what we're really seeing here is a much more interesting and productive game in which reporter and source try to parlay their best asset--information--into something that will win them an advantage.

The mayor's office wants their story out in the most favorable light possible. The reporter wants a scoop--in this case, the story about whom Fenty was picking as the new schools chief. So Nakamura and Brooks negotiate over when and where the reporter might be given the story. There's back and forth between the Post and Brooks over who can comment on the new appointee, Michelle Rhee. The city, trying to preserve the secrecy of its choice, asks the newspaper to agree to call for comment only the source the District provides, New York City schools boss Joel Klein.

Is that wrong? If the paper can get a story only by promising not to spread word about Rhee around town pre-publication, that creates a problem. How can the newspaper effectively give readers a full picture of the new appointee unless it is free to call up lots of people who know and have worked with her? But the decision in this case was made, as it often is, to report the story in stages. That's the beauty of a daily paper: You can get the story of the appointment one day, then come back the next day and flesh it out--who is this person, why was she picked, what problems and achievements lie in her past?

I asked Tom Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, whether the City Paper was right to do this story: "Clever of the City Paper to go to a public information request about a competitor's reporting
techniques," he replies, "but it should take care -- what's good for the goose is good for the gander."

But did Nakamura do anything ethically troubling? "The situation basically hits me as an aggressive and competitive beat reporter doing his job," Kunkel says. "As you know, the making of the sausage is not always pretty, and most beat reporters at one time or another can be viewed as 'sucking up' to sources. But the job, of course, is to get the story -- and, ideally, to get it exclusively for your news outlet. In my experience, alienating news sources is generally a bad way to go about getting information, so some 'sucking up' -- let's call it 'cultivation' -- is necessary. I'm sure Nakamura would prefer not to have his emails made public, but they don't strike me as out of bounds or inappropriate."

Indeed, Nakamura wasn't overjoyed to see his work process published in a free weekly. But he tells me that although he didn't relish seeing his emails in print, "The Post and its methods are fair game for criticism." He had learned some time back that another publication had sought the email records from the city, and since then, Nakamura says, he "started to change my reporting techniques, though not because I felt they were inappropriate, but rather to protect my sources from being outed in the future by another frustrated competitor."

In a famous New Yorker essay many years ago, Janet Malcolm derided reporting as a "con game," a tangle of tricks in which journalists try to maneuver sources into saying things that are not in their interest to say publicly. But Malcolm's portrait of the craft of reporting was simplistic and reductive--while there are certainly cases in which reporters try to elicit information that a source would be foolish or self-destructive to reveal, far more stories involve demonstrating to sources that divulging the truth will help them, or at least lead toward some larger good.

And in the case of the relationships between reporters and official government sources, the power lies very much in the hands of the public officials, and the news person's task is to triangulate information to make it impossible for the official to withhold the facts.

In this case, Nakamura says he routinely sends Brooks "several emails a day on average.... I also talk to her several times a day and visit her office more than once a week, even when she doesn't want me there (she can tell you how many times she's looked up from her desk to see me waving at her to come get me past security so I can bug her about a story). I have a different relationship with each of my sources; my goal is to get information from them. As such, I also recognize that someone like Carrie Brooks, the communications director, needs information from me to do her job. I try to be fair and honest with my sources, with the goal of developing trust so that I can get access and information for the readers."

Although the City Paper wrote the story fairly straight, the nature of DeBonis's report is to imply that there was something less than honorable about how Nakamura did his reporting. But I couldn't find reporters or editors who saw anything wrong with Nakamura's tactics. The only point in the Loose Lips column that raised eyebrows in the newsroom was the bit in which the reporter appears to be playing a role in a decision of an editorial writer--clearly a no-no in newsrooms where the news and editorial (opinion) pages are kept rigorously apart.

"So much for that vaunted news-editorial firewall," DeBonis writes.

But Nakamura, editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao and the Post's top editor for local news, Bob McCartney, all told City Paper that no such breach occurred. As McCartney said, there's no problem with a news reporter and an editorial writer consulting with one another over a matter of fact. If Nakamura simply told an editorial writer that the candidate who once appeared to be getting the schools job no longer was in the running, there's no crossing of the line, but merely a collegial assist on a question of fact.

So why did DeBonis write the piece? Does he really believe the Post's reporter has come upon his many scoops in the first year of the Fenty administration by cutting improper deals with the mayor's office?

He says not. "There's still a lot of people sore about the fact that the Post knew about Michelle Rhee before a lot of people who were supposed to be a part of the process," DeBonis tells me in an email. "And, sure, other reporters aren't happy when there's such a heavy-handed attempt to favor one outlet over another."

So did he act on pure jealousy that Nakamura and the Post are getting stories that other news organizations aren't? No, DeBonis says, "some of the e-mails I thought did raise legitimate questions that, if nothing else, would interest certain of the press corps." But neither in his story nor in his response to me did DeBonis point to any action by Nakamura that he would deem unethical or improper.

The fact is that the City Paper columnist, like any of us who do this stuff for a living, might have done any and all of what Nakamura did.

"I did think about this from a karmic point of view," DeBonis says. "After all, I of course have folks I talk to in the government that I'm friendly with. Maybe not to the extent that Dave and Carrie are friendly, but pretty darn friendly."

Any lessons learned here? Yes, you will see more phone calls and fewer emails when reporters get into negotiations with press officers. "I do tend to keep in mind that when I send an e-mail to a government computer that it isn't necessarily private," DeBonis says. "So I tend to have any sensitive conversations on the phone or through private e-mail addresses. Thing about the mayor's office is that so much business is done by e-mail/Blackberry that you can't help but have FOIA-discoverable paper trails for these things."

Will this dry up Nakamura's flow of scoops? Don't bet on that. His best stories often come from sources entirely independent of the mayor's office, and he's been anything but a homer (a reporter who writes favorably about the beat they cover.) He has written tough stories such as one about Fenty's haughty, dismissive manner, that other news outlets have had to follow.

"I get scoops from many different places," Nakamura says, and while I don't pretend to know his sources, I can certainly verify that that's how this biz works--write a story one day that seems to make one side in a dispute look good and you will receive a lovely document dump the next day from the other side. The good reporter works all sides of the story, and as the City Paper emails show, Nakamura works them well.

By Marc Fisher |  March 12, 2008; 8:09 AM ET
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Can Nakamura start covering VA politics? A reporter/columnist who actually knows how to dig would be a great improvement.

Posted by: Fairfax | March 12, 2008 8:25 AM

"But I couldn't find reporters or editors who saw anything wrong with Nakamura's tactics."

Duh -- That's the problem. How many lobbyists saw anything wrong with Abramoff's tactics? Reporters and editors control the ink so they get to paint a flattering picture of themselves but people who work closely with them have come to realize journalists ethical standards make politicians look like saints.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | March 12, 2008 8:51 AM

a kissup reporter exposed

Posted by: cooked fisher | March 12, 2008 9:32 AM

As Nakamura says: "The Post and its methods are fair game for criticism."

The Washington City Paper is a valuable resource for D.C. residents because it is not afraid to report on and analyze the work of the Washington Post. The front-page story a few weeks ago describing how the print and online offices of the Post differ in working style and content is a great example of this. Probably a better example than the DeBonis story on Nakamura's e-mails.

I appreciate Marc Fisher's desire to shine a better light on the work done by Nakamura. But the City Paper is absolutely correct to engage in this type of reporting, even if it seems a bit petty to Post columnists. By defending the Post against its competitor, Fisher treads a fine line, and he does so very well. He needs to be careful not to cross over it.

Posted by: SSMD | March 12, 2008 9:32 AM

The story made the news-gathering process seem a little ooky until I realized that there are actual human beings involved in it. Then I was OK with it.

Posted by: Lindemann | March 12, 2008 9:50 AM

Disagree, vehemently.
1. I think the embarrassing e-mails show Nakamura is in the pocket of the Fenty administration. We need reporters who are skeptics, not like Uriah Heap being slavish of their sources.
2. Before these e-mails were published, I foolishly believed there was a wall between the editorial writers and the reporters. The e-mails show how Nakamura tailored his coverage to fit the Post's editorial views.
3. What's wrong with the phone? This is an Eliot Spitzer moment, as Nakamura must have known that e-mails to government agencies are public information.

Posted by: edward | March 12, 2008 11:41 AM

It appears that even this blog is now censoring the views of those readers who choose to offer their comments on the Post's daily hypocracies. It used to be that you could offer a view on this blog without being subject to a weenie somewhere who decides that your comments are not on point. A sad day indeed.

The Post is biased people, let's not kid ourselves. It really should come as no surprise. Form your own opinions about the world and try your best not to be influenced by the freaks who write this paper that seek to convert as many mindless people to the dark (leftist) side of every issue.

Posted by: Robert Marley | March 12, 2008 11:49 AM

So we hear so much about the unscalable wall between editorial and reporting.

Then we hear that consultation over "a fact" is ok.

Then we hear that a reporter brags to a city official who they we able to stop an "attack" editoorial that would "crush" the administration. How did the reported even know about it?

Since we see reporting all that time that backs up the editorial page slant, (esp. on local stories - is it a coincidence today we get sympathetic story about PW soccer leagues & illegals the same day the editiorial board slams the PWC gov't for its position on illegals?) we should conclude the firewall still exists?


Posted by: Firewall | March 12, 2008 12:02 PM

Um, nice try, but no cigar, fisher. Nakamura is a two-bit hack and you look downright silly bending over backwards trying to defend him. What's described in these emails is exactly the kind of cosy, sycophantic relationship between reporter and officialdom that makes people so despise the media. I'm sure Nakamura will do fine one day as a White House correspondent, puckering up lovingly and kissing tail as a president prepares to goad the country into a senseless war or give tax breaks to his buddies.

Posted by: David K. | March 12, 2008 12:10 PM

"The city, trying to preserve the secrecy of its choice, asks the newspaper to agree to call for comment only the source the District provides, New York City schools boss Joel Klein.

Is that wrong?"

In a word, yes.

And I'm not buying the "we're a daily paper, so we can report in stages" argument, because what this really says is "okay, we promise to not ask too many people the wrong questions in exchange for the exclusive scoop, and maybe we'll follow up with some hard-ball questions at a later date". Only, how can anyone be assured that the "later date" ever arrives? Because the reporter in question, now in favor with his source, has a vested interest in maintaining the relationship, and has to balance the potential harm that fairly and openly reporting a story might do to the continued accessibility of the source.

I dislike "slippery slope" arguments, but this sure smells like a shining example to me. A news reporter's most prized asset is his or her integrity, and once you compromise that by making back-room agreements to report a news story a certain way to please a source, even with a nebulous intent to "flesh out" the story at some point in the future, the reporter ceases being an objective observer and becomes nothing more than a conduit by which said source can promote the version of the story the source wants the public to hear at the time the initial story is being published.

Posted by: Quibillus Maximus | March 12, 2008 12:11 PM

I would be more understanding if the Post did a better job covering the DC government. But the Metro section seems to be more about pushing spin than keeping the readers informed. As a reader I feel that my interests are pushed to the bottom of the totem pole.

Posted by: securitat | March 12, 2008 12:13 PM

When it comes to ethics and the Washington Post, someone please explain to me how it is OK for the Post to permit advertising for illegal brothels in the Sports Section of the paper. One need not look much farther than this fact when assessing the quality of this newspaper and its employees...

Posted by: Ronald Jeremy | March 12, 2008 1:27 PM

I cannot understand your logic chain, sense of ethics, nor this juicy piece of sophistry you spent all day writing. Please try looking up the definition for objectivity or please put a disclaimer on your blog citing I'm a juicy rationalist prone to apologist rants for my colleagues. This I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine ethos is exactly why this country has been sold to the highest bidder. Honor, it appears, is a quality in severe deficit in all professional fields.

Posted by: DC Teaching Fellow | March 12, 2008 1:27 PM

And just what are those interests, securitat?

Posted by: Paul | March 12, 2008 1:28 PM

Marc, I'm not buying your rationalization and approval of the partnership between the Fenty administration and the Post, in which the administration gets favorable coverage and the ability to dictate how the Post will cover the story and whom it will interview, in return for giving the Post advance notice of its decisions and appointments. You may consider that a fair exchange, and it may be for the newspaper and the administration, but it isn't for the readers, because it deprives readers of fair, full, and critical reporting on their government. If you were reporting on any corporation other than the Post, you would call it insider trading, and you would condemn it.

As Quibillus Maximus and secuitat have pointed out in their comments on your article, you're wrong when you say the Post could come back the next day and give a fuller and more complete version of an event, fairly quoting the administration's critics. It could publish those follow-up stories, but it doesn't, because that would jeopardize its cozy relationship with the administration. Your newspaper has many good reporters in Metro who do maintain their independence and their ties to communities, and who report on stories that would cast a shadow over the glowing self-portrait of the Fenty administration that we find in the Post. But they find their stories spiked by their editors or, at best, buried on page B8.

And, on a personal matter, I take offense that you share David Nakamura's contempt for "regular citizens" such as myself, when you write about the "picky questions civic gadfly Dorothy Brizill poses at mayoral news conferences." I ask picky questions like, "Isn't this supposedly new initiative just a new name for the same initiative that went into effect a few years ago?" "How much is this going to cost?" "How are you going to pay for it, since it isn't in the budget?" "This seems to violate District code; why do you think it is legal?" "What qualifies the nominee for this position?" Picky questions that, because they may prove embarrassing for the administration, the Post doesn't ask.

In summary, getting a day's jump on your competitors isn't worth the price of putting the paper in the tank for the administration.

Posted by: Dorothy Brizill | March 12, 2008 2:49 PM

We have a constitutional protection of a free speech because the press has ALWAYS expressed bias. Look back to the Federalists vs Anti-Federalists to see a war of words waged in publication. The difference now is that modern journalists pretend to be unbiased, while the newspapers of 200 years ago were much more willing to admit their biases. The Hearst cries of "Remember the Maine, To Hell With Spain" were not very unbiased either, even though it is still unknown what caused her sinking. With the advent of the "pajamas media," educated information consumers have finally realised that they must consider the source, as well as the "facts." The NYT smear of McCain a couple of weeks ago is further proof. McCain came out looking fine, while the NYT came off looking partisan.

Journalistic bias is everywhere, not just the editorial section. We aren't raised in an bubble, so it's only natural to expect our families, education, and political leanings to color our writing, as they do every other choice we make throughout each day.

I personally find the insight into Nakamura's work a fascinating view at "the man behind the curtain."

Posted by: Leesburger | March 12, 2008 3:18 PM

Marc, to a non-journalist, it just seems that you're a lot more likely to give the benefit of the doubt and look for favorable motivations on behalf of a colleague than you would be about a string of ambiguously-motivated emails coming out of some other industry.

Posted by: Tom T. | March 12, 2008 3:47 PM

Once again, Mr. Fisher you have missed the point. You clearly are willing to give a wink and a nod for whatever Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee want (even if wrong or irrational) and have a quick knee-jerk objection to "the people" expressing their view. That you are unable to see the fault lines in Mr. David Nakamura's writings and contacts with the Fenty Administration is sad. It is also obvious Mr. Nakamura may not be the only "mole". This exposes not only the cracks in the Post newsroom, but also in the Post's editorial room. Ms. Jo-Ann Armao does not have clean hands either.

Posted by: Robert Vinson Brannum | March 12, 2008 5:45 PM

I also found the city paper piece fascinating. It was enlightening. I wonder why Marc is protesting so much. The Post is more powerful than the Fenty administration.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 12, 2008 8:39 PM

What Fisher wrote is really silly/dumb...intellectually. Anyone who accepts that crap must be Fisher's relative or like silly and dumb things. The press says believe us, trust us, let us invade places nobody else can go so that the citizenry can be informed and protected from oppression. The Post has a reporter participating in the government's propaganda machine, and intentionally misleading readers. That's on the public record and the Post, through Fisher, has the abject nerve to offer a justification and suggest a higher good. The reporter should be fired, Fisher should never be allowed to mentor any up and coming reporter and the Post should shut down its presses...and apologize to public. The stuff about the City Paper reporter is a red herring and should be ignored by the readers. I just tried to mouth the phrase "first amendment" and I tasted vomit in my mouth. That is what the Post is doing to me.

Posted by: Julie | March 12, 2008 9:40 PM

Quibillus Maximus, I couldn't have said it better myself.

To add, I applaud DeBonis' sifting through emails -- a painstaking process, I imagine -- to bring to light an issue the public should know about. (Call me naive, but isn't that the purpose of the media?) Whether you consider Nakamura's cozy relationship with EOM a tempest in a teapot or a breach of journlistic ethics, the DeBonis article put something out there that should be discussed and examined. To that end, he succeeded.

Posted by: Kelly | March 13, 2008 8:57 AM

Remember, how the Washington Post and New York Times became the mouthpiece of the Bush Administration's lies in its relentless march toward war? Nakamura takes the same slavish approach with his education reporting. This is not journalism. A junior high school student could ask the Fenty Administration how it wants something said and what sources should be used and record the favored responses. A true journalist is supposed to be independent in his approach, questioning, skeptical, and willing to search to fill in the gaps in an effort to get the whole story. No journalism school teaches a reporter to be a stenographer for the powerful. Nakamura and Fisher lack credibility.

Posted by: Renee | March 13, 2008 9:02 PM

Um, nice try, but no cigar, fisher. Nakamura is a two-bit hack and you look downright silly bending over backwards trying to defend him. What's described in these emails is exactly the kind of cosy, sycophantic relationship between reporter and officialdom that makes people so despise the media.....

Posted by: David K. | March 12, 2008 12:10 PM

....and it's what got us into a win-less war in Iraq. How about that Fisher? When will The Post retract its reporting and pro-war editorial for that debacle.

Posted by: Fish Flayed and Fried | March 14, 2008 3:58 PM

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