Posted by Evan Maxwell, guest blogger and journalist emeritus
There’s been lots of talk recently about whether Barry Bonds’ hitting records ought to be marked with an asterisk, given his apparent reliance of injectables and ungents containing banned or questionable performance enhancing chemicals.
I am beginning to wonder whether the same question ought to be asked of a couple of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners, given their apparent reliance on uncredited legwork from the men and women who have extraordinary investigative resources every bit as powerful as Human Growth Hormone or the other performance boosters of the athletic world.
I’m speaking, of course, of the legwork provided by disgruntled operatives and analysts of the professional intelligence community, a bureaucracy that is extraordinarily clever in protecting itself and slashing its enemies.
I’m not the first to raise the question, I’m sure, but the weekend run of blogs and web analyses pointed me toward a chilling little compilation of facts that ought to alarm anybody interested in our government and our media. Stephen F. Hayes, writing in the Weekly Standard, laid out substantial evidence for the proposition that some factions within the Central Intelligence Agency have been out to discredit, if not destroy, the Bush Administration for years. Two of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, the beat reporting award to Dana Priest of the Washington Post and the national reporting co-winner to James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, appear to be the direct result of that effort to discredit.
One of the oldest newsroom adages covers this situation very well: A reporter is only as good as his or her sources. The saying is only partly true, since a great deal of valuable journalism is accomplished by investigation rather than reportage, if by reportage you mean taking what some source tells you and typing it up into the format of a news story. But the dirty little secret of modern journalism is that lots and lots of prize winning stories begin with the source’s decision to talk to a reporter, not with a reporter asking the right question or mousetrapping a public official into an admission of some sort.
And in the case of these two Pulitzers, the strength of the story lies not with the reporter but with the source. The leakers, whoever they were, had the volatile information, and they were smart enough to leak it where it would have maximum impact. They didn’t talk to reporters for second-tier papers or magazines. They didn’t seek out analytical writers with publications more friendly to the administration, like the Wall Street Journal. They went straight to reporters for the two most powerful anti-Bush agenda-setting publications in the country, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
The reporters who collected the Pulitzer hardware were like Barry Bonds used to be, good, solid journeymen and women, thoughtful professionals with solid career numbers. But they acquired journalistic Human Growth Hormone in the form of the most closely guarded secrets of an agency whose members are sworn to secrecy. With that kind of rocket assist, even Ted Baxter, the news reader of the old Mary Tyler Moore show, could have nabbed a Pulitzer or an Emmy or something.
I don’t want to completely denigrate what Priest and Risen and Lichtblau accomplished. They were shrewd to cultivate the right sources, to make themselves available for the critical leaks that were the genesis of the story. I will not even play the small trump of questioning their patriotism, because they can do what they did with the kind of clear conscience that a soldier might have in executing enemy wounded on the battlefield.
And they did the sometimes hard work of integrating their human-growth-hormone caliber information into stories that could shape the national debate.
But those reporters’ prizes will deserve a mental asterisk because they were being used by powerful, well-positioned bureaucrats to wage their own private political war against a duly-elected government. You don’t have to choose sides between the bureaucrats and the politicians to wonder about the propriety of the battle. Nor do you have to hate reporters to question the role they regularly play in the political process: Journalists are tools, as often as not, and acknowledging that fact is one of the hardest things a reporter ever has to do.
Evan Maxwell, guest blogger.