The Public Eye Chat With…Mark Knoller

It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller, who has covered six presidents and who is, according to Dana Milbank, "the leading collector of modern presidential arcana." You can read excerpts, and listen to the full interview, below.

to listen to the interview.
Brian Montopoli: Is it a good time to be a White House reporter?

Mark Knoller: Oh, it's always a good time to be a White House reporter. It's always a good story, covering the president of the United States, even when there's not much going on…and in recent years, we've been through wars, impeachments, resignations – it's a good story for a reporter, you bet.

Brian Montopoli: I'm curious what qualities make a good White House reporter, because it's so different – it's a lot more controlled in terms of what you can do. It's a different system than the reporting you do in a lot of other fields.

Mark Knoller: Well, you know, I started off as a young guy, fresh out of college, as a police beat reporter in New York. Certainly the White House is different. You're right – there are different logistics involved, different rules of access. But you get used to them. You learn to cover your beat within the confines and the restrictions that are put on you. You learn to try and go around as many of those restrictions that you can. And you learn shortcuts for doing it.

Brian Montopoli: A year ago, you did our now-departed "10 Plus 1" feature, and you said that the practices, ethics and missteps of the news business should be more covered than they are. Can you elaborate on that?

Mark Knoller: What we write, and the way we do our jobs, affects the way the American people assess their government, assess the situation in the world, the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, relations with other countries. If we're not doing it properly, or questions can be raised about the way we do it, it ought to be reported as well. I don't think we're above criticism – just the contrary. Although many of us in this business have a thin skin, we ought to be able to look at ourselves and accept criticism from others. I think there's not enough media criticism out there.

Some of the problems: You mention one, pack journalism. Whereby one or two or a couple reporters lead the way on the way a story is reported. We shouldn't be influenced by one another. We ought to make our judgments independently. The question that was raised by the Libby trial – how reporters deal with sources in the government…To an extent we are being used by our sources. If a senior official calls me in and says "hey, did you know that Joe Wilson…his wife was at the CIA," well, they're telling us that not because they like us or want to help us. They've got an axe to grind. They're trying to color the report that Joe Wilson gave. And that all came out in the Libby trial. And frankly, it wasn't a proud day for journalism.

Brian Montopoli: How can that be fixed? What can be done? Because you need to rely on these sources to some extent.

Mark Knoller: Yeah, but you've got to be wary about being used by sources. And you've also got to be wary about to what extent you agree to give a senior official anonymity when doing a conversation. The American people have a right to know – if somebody under the cover of anonymity is badmouthing someone else, is that fair?

I often think about the case of Wen Ho Lee, who was accused of stealing secrets from one of America's nuclear laboratories. He was cleared of charges. He's trying to find out who was badmouthing him but reporters are saying no, we're not going to tell you because he was a confidential source, and we're not going to disclose that information. So where does Wen Ho Lee go to get his good name back if he can't find out who was badmouthing him and why?