When does being close to a story turn into being too close for a journalist? That's the question the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley raises today in his review of Andrea Mitchell's book, "Talking Back". Yardley takes on the NBC correspondent (who is also married to Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan) for wanting to have it "both ways," writing:
"On the one hand, she wants to be the prototypical hard-nosed, gumshoe reporter whose specialty is 'talking back' to presidents and dictators, but on the other, she wants to be part of the parade, on first-name terms with the powerful, wealthy and famous, invited to their dinner parties and salons, courted and cosseted by them."
By virtue of her marriage, Mitchell may be one of the best examples of journalists (especially in Washington) who walk a fine line between covering powerful celebrities and being among them. But she's certainly not the only one. And it raises all kinds of questions about the cozy relationships that can sometimes exist.
This is an issue we'll continue to explore more deeply in the future, but here are a few thoughts: When should relationships be disclosed by reporters? Obviously being married to someone ought to disqualify one from covering them for a news outlet, but what about friendships. How about whether their children attend the same schools? Does being a reporter mean one shouldn't have dinner with anyone they might cover in a purely social setting? How about cocktail parties?
The answers aren't as simple as you might think. Journalists are in the job of getting information and the more trust that exists with sources and news figures, the better that information is going to be. At the same time, to what degree does it compromise the reporter? Does it make them a vessel for only what officials want to make public? Does it make them less likely to look for or report more negative news?
For Yardley, the issue is clear:
"Yes, journalists are human, as vulnerable to flattery and courtship as anyone else – perhaps all the more so since our egos tend to be a good deal larger than our talents – but the solution to the problem is very easy; Just say no."
The other side of it is, to what extent does such professional distance hamper the public's ability to know? Or does it?