Esteemed colleague and co-bloggerÃ‚Â Eric Black has come in for some rough criticism of his reporting on U.S. Rep. Michele BachmannÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mysterious statement about IranÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s plans in Iraq.
Ã‚Â Eric, to be sure, can take care of himself. But one line of attack betrays such a naÃƒÂ¯ve misunderstanding of how journalists do their work that I feel I should speak up, if only in my capacity as a political news editor.
Many Bachmann defendersÃ‚Â – notably talk radio host Jason Lewis on Friday, Monday and Tuesday –Ã‚Â have decried the fact that ardent and more or less full-time Bachmann critics tipped Eric to the statement Bachmann made in a recordedÃ‚Â interview with the St. Cloud Times.
They also complain that the statement was two weeks old when Eric wrote about it and insist that he should be satisfied with BachmannÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s vague clarification of what she meant, which does little to explain what she said.
Above all, though, Lewis & Co. suggest that there is something discreditable about a journalist pursuing a story that is being peddled by people with an obvious political axe to grind. (Here’s a link to audio of Lewis’Ã‚Â recent programs. The Bachmann/Black portions start in the file labeled 2/23 -5 p.)
One wonders how such people think watchdog journalism happens. Seldom do politicians phone the newspaper to call our attention to their own misdeeds or missteps. Only rarely do the political or ideological allies of a politician, administration or legislative majority shine a light on instances of corruption or incompetence among their friends and standard bearers.
Sometimes, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s true, journalists launch investigations entirely on their own. But most of the time, watchdog journalism starts with a tip from someone who has a grievance (political or personal) with the target of the inquiry. Incompetence and mischief in high places would almost NEVER come to light if reporters and editors were too pure to check out such leads to see if they are true and newsworthy.
Let me move from abstraction to real world examples.
Ã‚Â I easily recall three fairly prominent stories I had some involvement with in the past year that were a bit hard on Democrats and that began with tips from their political foes:
According to the logic of EricÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s critics the newspaper should have ignored all these stories, since they had been Ã¢â‚¬Å“plantedÃ¢â‚¬Â by enemies of the politicians involved. That didn’t happen. There are times when the source of a tip does cause the newspaper to steer clear of a story – usually when a source tries to attach an unreasonable condition to use of the information. But such cases are rare.