Can a reporter be sure the information she receives is good enough to share with the public? CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver examines the "spin doctors" and media manipulation. This special column for CBS.com is updated each week for the CBS News Sunday Morning site on CBS.com. An archive of The Braver Line is available.
It was a typical Washington book party. The author's friends and acquaintances were packed into a tiny space. Lawyers, journalists, current and former administration officials stood elbow to elbow as waiters with drink-laden trays wove their way through the crowd. I arrived right in the middle of the speeches, the part where the author thanks everyone and "distinguished" speakers say something nice about the author. But suddenly I realized that this time, the author's friends and colleagues were heaping praise on him for his great ability as a "spin doctor."
To get personal about it, I was standing there listening to someone being congratulated for his skill at manipulating and controlling people like me. "What am I doing here?" I asked myself and got the heck out.
The more important question is why I had gone to this book party for Lanny J. Davis and his new book, Truth to Tell, in the first place.
You may remember Lanny, former White House scandal spokesman, from his many television appearances defending the president. Tall, thin guy with glasses. Very intense. In his book he acknowledges that early on in his White House tenure he lied to me about the fact that at the very moment he was assuring me that no story was breaking, the White House was deliberately and selectively leaking an exclusive as a "present" to The Washington Post.
So why would a reporter who was lied to go to a party for the acknowledged liar? Well, despite that lie and a few other questionable answers, I actually found Lanny Davis more honest and forthcoming than many of the official spokesmen with whom I've dealt over the years. He's an engaging fellow, too.
So I guess the answer to my attendance at his party lies in the fact that I have surrendered to the "Washington Syndrome," akin to the famous "Stockholm Syndrome," in which hostages begin to have kindly thoughts toward their captors. In the "Washington Syndrome," we become so grateful to those who give us the occasional shred of real information that we forgive their lapses.
I started covering Washington during the time of Vietnam and Watergate and thus became part of a generation of journalistic skeptics. We learned never to believe a story the first way we heard it. We learned that you have to ferret out facts and hear several versions of a story in order to get to the truth, and that even then you may never know exactly what the truth is. In some cases, we learned the hard way that a source will give you a bit of information that can e true enough but incomplete, that you can report a story that is both accurate and inaccurate at the same time.
But over more than a quarter of a century, it seems to me that covering the news has become more complex. Just as reporters put up more barriers to believing the first versions of the stories they hear, those who put out information are more wary, and sometimes deliberately deceptive about letting the truth out.
The increased pace of modern media, with all-news radio, cable television, and the Internet, leaves less time for sorting out, and more instances of reporting information as it is unfolding and changing. It's harder to hold onto a story because of competitive pressure. And it seems harder for some of those being asked questions about a breaking story to give up the facts without a fight.
In his book, Davis even discloses that his own colleagues in the White House refused to confirm for him the embarrassing information that independent counsel Kenneth Starr had issued a subpoena for the president's testimony. "Now, I knew what it was like to be a reporter dealing with this White House on the Lewinsky story," he writes. Ah, yes.
The trouble with this official games-playing is that it makes it difficult to believe official versions of all other stories. Are we to believe that the president really didn't know that there was a high likelihood that U.S. Department of Energy secrets were being leaked to the Chinese on his watch? Are we to believe that the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was a "mistake?" Are we to believe that U.S. intelligence really had enough concrete information about alleged terrorist Osama Bin Laden to launch military raids on his alleged operations?
As reporters, we feel in danger of being either captives or renegades. If a source, official or unofficial, gives us incorrect information, it is our reputations that are on the line. We take heat for both accepting and refusing to accept official versions of incidents. We are considered either dupes or cynics.
Our best chance is to try to get information from multiple sources, seeking out the most accurate version of a story we can put together by deadline time. Sometimes we make mistakes.
So back to the book party. On one level, it has to be consorting with the enemy to celebrate his confessions of hoodwinking you, either by accident or design. On another level, there's a certain balance that comes with getting to know and understand what motivates an official government "spinmeister." You always hope that the next time around (and in Washington there's almost always a next time around), you'll have a better relationship. That he'll be more truthful. That you'll be better at reading between his lines.
But I don't know. Thinking back about all those speeches makes me think I should probably have stayed away.
By Rita Braver
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