E-mail has made the news, news stories, and newspapers dull.
I bring this up because of a complaint I heard recently from a veteran Washington journalist who deals with The Pentagon often, and because of something I saw during President Obama’s press conference on Tuesday about the government shutdown and debt limit. If you haven’t watched the president’s hour-plus give and take with reporters [here’s the link] I urge you to do so. It’s a good civics lesson, and I’ll explain what it has to do with e-mail in a moment.
My journalist friend was complaining over lunch about how hard it is to get timely, responsive, complete information out of the public affairs personnel who handle press queries at one of the four armed services at the Pentagon.
Here’s how it goes: A reporter is onto a good military story—and I don’t mean scandal– but just a good informative military related story that the reporter has dug up on their own or from some source deep in the Pentagon or at a military base. He or she calls up public affairs to get more background and maybe an official on-the-record interview with a senior officer. The response almost invariably goes like this: “Send me an e-mail with your questions.”
E-mail is a rotten reporting tool for journalists, particularly here in Washington. Every elected and appointed official is so worried that they might go off message, they don’t do in-person or telephone interviews anymore. They fear that their quotes will be taken out of context, or distorted, and they’ll find themselves roasted to a crisp in a week-long hell of political gaffe-dom.
“Send me an e-mail,” the staffers for elected and appointed officials say at almost all levels of the government when a reporter calls to make a query or ask for an interview. Reporters plead in response, “I can really ask my questions and get answers in a phone interview in 5 or 10 minutes, and it will be faster for both me, the reporter, and your boss, the source.” Nope, send us an e-mail, the spokesmen say.
Then you spend 30 minutes crafting cogent, clear questions in an e-mail and you send it. Hours later, pushing up against deadline, you get an e-mail response from the staffer, a massaged, dull, boilerplate statement that they’ve spent hours getting cleared through 18 levels of bureaucracy, and it’s no good for anything. You can’t quote it, it’s too dull, it’s lifeless, odorless, colorless, and unhelpful. But the staffer thinks they’re being helpful and responsive because they’ve sent you something and they can check it off their task list. But really, the e-mail reply is non-responsive.
If politicians and appointed officials do deign talk to you, it’s either so proscribed with rules (this part is on background, this part you have to clear the quotes with me, this part you can’t use) it’s almost worthless. Or if they do talk to anyone on-the-record, they have so memorized the talking points, and the message, that reporters walk away, muttering under their breath, “He or she gave me nothing new.”
The reason that everyone insists on e-mail is that both the inquirer and the responder has a written record of what was said, what was replied, and no one can lie about it. It’s in black and white. It’s in a document that can be printed out. It’s safe and won’t get anyone into trouble. And it doesn’t say a damn thing. It is so sanitized that it doesn’t begin to answer the carefully crafted questions it took you a half hour to write that morning. And it leaves no room for follow-up questions that you think about on the fly during any normal human conversation.
And that brings me back to President Obama’s 66-minute press conference on Tuesday. Sure, he had rehearsed his talking points and kept returning to them. But because he stood out there for such a long time, reporters got to do more follow ups and toward the end of the session he became more spontaneous and let a little of his frustration and exasperation at Congress show. And that was good. He appeared more human. And you began to understand the politics and pressures of this big game of chicken that House Republicans are playing with the nation’s finances.
In a way, Obama’s performance was one of the best I had seen him give. He was almost Bill Clinton-like in his patient use of explanation and analogy. Sure, he used a bit of incendiary language when complaining about ransoms and hostage-taking, but he was also clear, discursive, reasonable and tutorial about what was facing the country if the U.S. were to default on its debt obligations. I actually learned a few things that I didn’t know, and I follow this story closely.
A live conversation with a knowledgeable source is always better, period. It is so much richer for reporters, and for readers, and for the source, and it’s far quicker to do. The reporter and the source can do the dance of dialogue, leaping from topic to topic, getting in barbs and one-liners along the way. That’s actually one of the joys of being a reporter, and being a source, is this political and factual give and take. Most reporters are quick and accurate note takers and get most quotes pretty much verbatim with a notebook or tape recorder, anyway, or at least so close that it still has the soul and wit of real conversation.
Now, because of e-mail and the electronic “paper” trail of safe, leavened missives, many of those conversations don’t take place at all in Washington. Capitol Hill is still relatively open to this kind of conversation in the halls and cloakrooms. But even there, the art of spontaneous conversation and questioning has ebbed. Senators and representative know not to be spontaneous anymore. It gets them into too much trouble. It’s too human.
That’s why House Speaker John Boehner, in response to Obama, came out and gave only a five-minute statement. He didn’t want to stray from message. I asked myself, after his statement, why did he bother? He could have sent the press an e-mail.
E-mail may be easy and convenient, but it is making the news boring.