Leaving money on the table: Our friend Beth Fouhy got a wheelbarrow full of pure gold out of her interview with Jerry Brown last April, but left most of it sitting on the table. A national political writer for AP, Fouhy was one of five journalists whose interviews with Brown or his AG office staff members were secretly taped by ex-press secretary Scott Gerber, in what has turned into a Capitol political drama worthy of its own reality show.
As Joe Mathews notes, the transcript of the lengthy Fouhy interview offers a case study, not only of Brown’s “cagey, canny, and candid” adversarial style with reporters (Calbuzz would add “charming, churlish and coercive” to the list) but also his singular insight and talent for practical politics.
Because Fouhy was writing a profile of Brown for a national audience, the piece resulting from the interview was of necessity larded up lots of ancient history (not to mention balancing but boring Steve Poizner quotes) that required the sacrifice of most of the great, political junkie stuff she wrung out of Brown, from his to-the-penny recall about his rival’s fundraising to his utter disdain for campaign consultants.
Knowing Beth, we assume she was saving her jucier, insider stuff for a piece closer to the election, when interest would be higher and interviews with Crusty harder to come by. Which is another reason taping even on-the-record conversations with journalists is unethical at least: if the transcripts become public, the reporter’s proprietary questions and the answers he or she has collected are suddenly public property. That sucks. Sorry Beth, that didn’t stop us for one second from using your stuff.
Journalism navel-gazing alert: Investigative pundit George Skelton offers a thoughtful take about his queasiness and guilty voyeuristic feelings at reading every word of the tapes, a rumination that recalls many of the hard questions about the practice and ethics of journalism famously raised by Janet Malcolm in her seminal New Yorker pieces called “The Journalist and the Murderer.”
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she wrote back in 1990, setting off an enormous kerfuffle among card-carrying ink-stained wretches across the land.
He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
Coming from a member of the tribe, such ruthless self-examination about the inherently manipulative nature of the journalistic enterprise was greeted as pure calumny by many of Malcolm’s colleagues.
It’s a plain fact that reporters and editors are notoriously thin-skinned about their own shortcomings – and we include ourselves in that category. In the New Media age, however, it’s also true that the process of news gathering has become a story in itself,; the time when reporters could enjoy the luxury of treating as private property the ways and means they do their jobs is past, overtaken by the digital world’s demand for transparency.
Enough with the wool gathering, what about the politics? Reasonable people may differ about the significance of the content of the tapes: Chilling look into the deep recesses of a troubled soul? Revealing glimpse of journalism at its best and worst? Elephant giving birth to mouse? You Be The Judge. But all right-thinking people can agree on one thing: as a political matter, Brown has botched the handling of this controversy.
More than two weeks after the first disclosure about Gerber recording conversations with reporters without their knowledge or consent, the AG’s office is still playing defense on the matter, and not very effectively at that.
On the day Gavin Newsom dropped out of the primary race, we warned that being the only Democrat left standing would prove a mixed blessing; the serial blundering by Brown’s minions in trying to get their story straight about the recordings has handed the GOP and its field of candidates a cudgel with which to bash him – not on ancient history like Rose Bird , Medflies or Adrianna friggin’ Gianturco – but on something au courant and easily understood by voters.
The AG’s internal report of the recordings mess – i.e. some poor schmuck was assigned to investigate two of his bosses and, surprise, surprise, found them pure as the driven snow – just doesn’t pass the smell test, even if there wasn’t an email showing that Brown’s chief deputy knew, or should have known, in advance about Gerber’s plan to tape the conversation that got him busted. Which there is.
With Brown’s office concurrently running a probe of the scandal known as ACORN, which happens to include an investigation of whether secretly recorded videotapes were legal, the public perception’s of the integrity of that case is at risk, as well.
Which is precisely why Republicans are now in full bay over the tapes matter. The state GOP on Thursday released an online ad attacking Brown on the issue (the tight shots of his old guy eyebrows may be the most damning image in the spot). NB: This is just an online ad that only a handful of voters will ever see. To make it an effective message point, someone would have to put it on TV with about $2 million behind it. As is, it’s mostly show-trial stuff.
Meanwhile, the party’s three wannabe govs have found rare unanimity on l’affaire des enregistrements. Team Whitman tagged the affair a shining example of why “Californians have lost confidence in Sacramento politicians” while The Commish said Brown has “failed to exercise (his) duties” to pursue impartial justice, echoing eMeg’s demand for a “third party investigation.”
Tom Campbell, of course, was the only one of the three to actually do his homework and suggest a rational policy solution (which coincidentally would offer Brown a political pathway out of the briar patch). Said Dudley Do Right:
The Attorney General should invite the State Auditor to conduct an independent investigation pursuant to California Government Code Section 8547.5 to determine whether the Attorney General’s office has violated state law. This step will assure the people of California of the neutrality and validity of the outcome.
The secret taping of reporter conversations is a very serious matter that could have a chilling effect on press freedoms. It is all the more serious when undertaken by a state law enforcement agency without proper consent.
Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: In case you missed it, the ByGodLATimes has graciously posted the radio clip from Warren Olney’s “Which Way LA” in which Times Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter is joined by an original Calbuzzer in a discussion of the Times/USC Poll findings as they relate to the constitutional convention and government reform.
Abortion wars: For those, like us, who think the political impact of House Democrats simultaneously approving health care reform and retreating on abortion rights has been underplayed, Washpost media man Howard Kurtz has an excellent round-up of news, analysis and commentary on the issue.