BuzzFeed's story yesterday on a hostile email exchange between a Daily Caller reporter and the Democratic National Committee produced yet more hostile emails, also leaked, and some discussion of the ethics of leaking reporters' emails, with Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple writing that he didn't think the Caller's question "should trigger the flack's nuclear option."
Reporters don’t want to see their proprietary questions broadcast to the rest of the world, lest they lose their scoops and their trust in people to whom they direct questions. Woodhouse has a point as well: On-the-record discussions flow both ways; journalists cannot expect to bully sources and escape consequences.
Wemple does a good job of weighing the considerations, but his use of the word "should" seems to confuse ethics and tactics. Of course press staffers shouldn't leak reporters' emails if they want reporters' trust. But reporters, partisan or not, also shouldn't operate under the illusion that political aides and they are on the same team. Any reporter would be furious at a leaked email, and the relationship would be blown. But reporters themselves capitalize constantly on just that sort of decision — a source who leaks a private email for a reason of her own, and knowing that it will blow up the relationship with the emailer. This is a matter of personal relationships and personal ethics, not specifically professional ones. And do even personal ethics dictate the confidentiality of, in particular, unsolicited emails?
The Daily Caller email struck us as lifting a curtain on an interesting piece of journalistic tradecraft, and a fairly extreme instance of it, making it useful and interesting to readers.
The competing impulse isn't ethics of any particular sort. It's solidarity among reporters, and the longstanding distaste for what used to be called "queering" someone else's story by allowing a political organization to direct an answer to someone other than the questioner. That's not a practice that anyone but the most domesticated news organization wants to encourage. It's one thing to print an email that actually reveals something about the way the press works, another just to take someone else's story. That's why, when another response to a question from Boyle, this time from Harry Reid's office, arrived unsolicited at BuzzFeed, we forwarded it on to Boyle, prompting understandable irritation from Reid's aide and, because no good deed goes unpunished, howls from the Caller that we are in the Democrats' pocket.
The undertone of the conflict between the DNC and the Caller is the rebirth of a vibrant partisan media. There are now news outlets like ThinkProgress and the Free Beacon that are explicitly part of partisan organizations. Others, like the Caller and TPM, are independent but aligned with one of Washington's two sides. Do press aides have the same responsibilities to reporters from partisan organizations as to those from outfits, from BuzzFeed to the Post, whose stance is more traditional, and neutral? The working compromise seems to be that relationships are personal, and reporters value personal reputations for fairness. But this can only strain further as the trend toward partisanship continues; one could imagine, say, the DNC hiring its own reporters. Would, or should, the RNC take their calls?