New York Times media reporter Jeremy Peters issued a warning to young journalists on Wednesday’s front page, “Covering 2012, Youths on the Bus”: There are partisan bloggers out there who are out to embarrass mainstream journalists. Ironic, given that mainstream journalists have been doing just that to conservative politicians for decades.
A group of five fresh-faced reporters from National Journal and CBS News clicked away on their MacBooks one recent afternoon, dutifully taking notes as seasoned journalists from the campaign trail shared their rules of the road.
Preparing journalists to cover the presidential campaign these days is also an exercise in indiscretion management. In the new dynamic of campaigns, reporters themselves are targets both of political strategists as well as other journalists and bloggers.
“People are watching you,” Fernando Suarez, a CBS News reporter who covered Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, admonished the young reporters. He recounted once innocently checking his e-mail and Facebook page during a Clinton rally in Oregon. A local blogger looked over his shoulder, snapped a picture of him and then wrote an item criticizing the media for being disengaged.
“Just be smart,” Mr. Suarez added. “Now that everybody has a Flip cam, they’re looking to get you.” The young reporters nodded earnestly.
Peters then provided a list of alleged horrors visited upon liberal journalists by activists and bloggers:
Embarrassment now comes with the swift tapping of thumbs on a BlackBerry or an off-the-cuff quip uploaded to YouTube. Helen Thomas, the trailblazing White House correspondent, saw her career come to an ignominious end last year after she made hostile comments about Israel to a rabbi who filmed the encounter and posted it on his personal Web site. CNN fired Octavia Nasr, its senior editor for Middle East affairs, after she composed a 19-word Twitter message expressing sadness after the death of a Hezbollah leader.
In the hands of a political partisan looking to discredit a news organization, these slip-ups can become powerful and fatal ammunition. “Everything you say can and will be used against you,” said Ron Fournier, the editor-in-chief of National Journal.
Some reporters have even found their personal e-mails leaked and used against them. David Weigel, now a columnist for Slate, was pressured into leaving his job at The Washington Post last year after he attacked conservatives in private messages that found their way to a right-leaning Web site, The Daily Caller.
To be precise, those "private messages" were not emails stolen from Weigel’s private email account, but attacks that Weigel posted to “JournoList,” an online message board composed of several hundred liberal journalists and academics, which were subsequently leaked to The Daily Caller.
The willingness by some campaigns and activist groups to not just push back against the news media but to discredit and disparage is something relatively new, born of an erosion of the media’s all-powerful reputation and new technology that allows anyone with an Internet connection to be a messenger.
Report5ers have far more to worry about these days than missteps of their own making. A new generation of political activists like James O’Keefe, the conservative sabotage artist behind the hidden recordings that helped ignite outrage against Planned Parenthood, Acorn and National Public Radio, are setting traps with the goal of discrediting the media.
Mr. O’Keefe tried last year to lure a CNN correspondent aboard a boat, where he planned to make romantic advances while a hidden camera recorded the encounter. Fortunately for CNN, the correspondent got wise to the scheme and avoided what would have probably been an embarrassing moment.