By Tim Hayes
So often in sports, especially football, during the post-game news conference a coach will lament a team’s loss by attributing it to not “finishing plays” – meaning that players failed to sustain their intensity and focus for the second longer it takes to make a tough catch, or tackle a speedy receiver, or make a critical block.
We are currently witnessing an amazing and hopeful revival of American journalism, particularly at the national level, during the drama that has been unfolding in Washington for the past few years. The level of investigative reporting being done on a daily basis – in the face of unrelenting criticism and opposition by those being reported on – has been nothing short of admirable and vital to the informational underpinnings of this nation’s democracy.
The president admitted as much early on during the campaign when he said something to the effect that the news media should be grateful he’s around because he’s such good copy. He was right then and continues to be so today.
Last week at a news conference in the Oval Office, a reporter from the Reuters news service, Jeff Mason, posed a question to the president. Fireworks ensued.
To quote from a follow-up story in The New York Times:
“Mr. Mason, a veteran White House correspondent, had posed a straightforward question: What did the president hope to achieve when he asked the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, about the Biden family’s dealings in his country?…The substance of Mr. Mason’s question went unanswered, so the Reuters reporter tried again.
“The question, sir,” Mr. Mason said, “was: What did you want President Zelensky to do about Vice President Biden and his son Hunter?”…“Did you hear me? Did you hear me?” Mr. Trump said from his lectern. “Ask him a question (referring to the president of Finland). I’ve given you a long answer. Ask this gentleman a question. Don’t be rude.” “I don’t want to be rude,” Mr. Mason replied. “I just wanted you to have a chance to answer the question that I asked you.”
His calm on Wednesday won praise from fellow journalists. “Jeff Mason is a total pro,” a Washington Post reporter, Michael Scherer, wrote on Twitter. “That was textbook. Play the tape in journalism schools.”
Agreed. But why the kudos? Why did this particular exchange strike fellow White House Press Pool reporters as so remarkable? A journalist – accountable to readers and viewers, not to the administration being covered – asked a direct question from the most accountable source involved, and politely insisted on a response.
Yeah…? So…? Isn’t that the job?
Reporters working stories as vast and deep as the federal government have literally hundreds of sources from which to collect information. Many of those sources never show up on TV. No one outside their immediate sphere knows their names. They have important information, though, and should be held accountable just like those in the leadership positions.
But it is their very anonymity that reporters use to dig out that information. A blanket of perceived immunity – or at least the sense of being a single drop in a larger ocean – keeps this journalistic organism alive and functioning.
Standing up in a cramped press huddle and facing the key source of the biggest story in the world, eye to eye, somehow has become a study in demure bowing and scraping. And this tendency arises with every administration, as the office holders and journalists onsite achieve familiarity and submit to complacency. It’s never right. There should always be a level of tension in the air.
Showing deference to your source is fine, to a point. And Jeff Mason of Reuters quite properly and justifiably stepped past that point last week. He did a good job, but it should never be the exception.
Come on, journalists in the White House. Stand tall. Stand firm. Ask the key questions and ask them again and again and again. Do the job we need you to do. Finish the play.
Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes