Friday, December 05, 2008

"Anonymous Industry Sources Control Congress": Matt Stoller targets "industry lobbyists and their incestuous journalistic partners"


"This unaccountable and unelected system, where industry lobbyists and their incestuous journalistic partners directly contradict the power vested by the public in our elected officials, is why the public hates the Beltway and its trappings of power."
-- Matt Stoller, in an OpenLeft post yesterday, "Anonymous Industry Sources Control Congress"

by Ken

Howie did a thorough job yesterday on CongressDaily's takedown of the Democrats next in line to chair the House Ways and Means Committee -- in the event that a replacement is needed for my congressman, Charlie Rangel. "Too liberal" is the hysterical screech about both Pete Stark of Callifornia and Jim McDermott of Washington, with assorted other allegations and innuendos piled on.

As Howie pointed out, such complaints never seem to come up when rabid right-wingers or conniving and/or outright thieving thugs serve as committee chairmanships. There doesn't seem to be such a thing as too conservative, or, where the interests at stake are pro-cooperate, too close to the interests the committee oversees.

I kicked this point around recently while speculating about the possibility of Sen. Russ Feingold taking over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from VP-elect Joe Biden in the event that John Kerry were to get the nod as secretary of state. As we know, that eventuality never eventuated. But, to his credit, Senate Majority Harry Reid put himself on record unequivocally that in the event Senator Feingold's turn came up, he would not be bypassed.

There's another dimension to the CongressDaily story, though, and I have to credit Matt Stoller with not just recognizing it but making a glorious federal case of it on OpenLeft. What set Matt's bullshit detector off is that "reporter" Peter Cohn, in a piece filled with Inside the Beltway opinions, and mighty strong ones at that, used not a single identified source. Bless his heart, Matt actually counted and found that the piece uses no fewer than nine anonymous sources -- among them a strong preponderance of lobbyists, whose interest in the matter is hardly impartial, or apt to be on the side of good government.

Here is my rendering -- in countdown form -- of Matt's rundown of The Anonymous Nine:

(1) a GOP tax lobbyist, who says that Charlie Rangel is "a long way from going down."

(2) a Democrat close to leadership (and thus presumably an actual member of Congress! the only one we're going to hear from), who says, "The conventional wisdom is [Stark] would have a tough time getting elected chairman."

(3) sources, who say that Stark is prone to gaffes, as when he suggested that our troops were in Iraq dying "for the president's amusement" -- a suggestion that aroused so much quick outrage that no consideration was allowed for the extent to which this catastrophic adventure was made possible by His Chimpiness's desperate, pathetic attempt to prove that he's something other than a worthless shell of a human being. Of course you're not allowed to say that if you're a serious D.C. insider.

(4) an industry lobbyist, who says that Stark "is just not tenable." Apparently the business community would "go nuclear. It would just be open warfare."

(5) industry sources, who describe Richard Neal of Massachusetts as "someone they could work with" (unlike Stark, who's "seen as very much in tune with the labor movement").

(6) sources, who say that Jim McDermott, while "a bit more of a pragmatist than Stark," is "still in the too-liberal category" and "also is a highly partisan figure."

(7) an industry source, who suggests that John Lewis of Georgia, "the well-liked, highly respected former civil rights leader whose selection could smooth over relations with the Congressional Black Caucus if Rangel were to be nudged out."

(8) sources, wo say that Richard Neal "is the favorite of the business community and has labor bona fides as well" and "is seen as a bright, active and relatively young chairman-in-waiting, but as fifth in seniority after Rangel, the time may not yet be ripe to choose him."

(9) another industry source, who "while noting the lack of a smoking gun, referred to the steady drumbeat of allegations as potentially damaging. 'In this town, impression often matters more than fact,' the source said."

Now Matt can be both one of the most lucid, logical writers I know and, when he gets up a head of steam, one of the most eloquent. In his final two paragraphs he demonstrates both modes.

First he explains what's wrong with Cohn's stringing together of these anonymous sources:
Not one single person will go on the record to discuss why the seniority system shouldn't work in the case of Stark, not one policy idea is considered in the article vis-a-vis Stark or anyone else's record, and the reader learns nothing about the tax writing committee from it other than nine anonymous sources in Congress think something. Apparently, the amorphous business community will 'go nuclear', whatever that means, Stark is gaffe-prone, but neither the public, policy, or the shift leftward in Congress as evidenced by Waxman's recent committee victory in the Energy and Commerce tussle are even referenced.

"And this is the point," he says, setting the stage for this:
One of the most insidious aspects of DC is how the conventional wisdom that dominates policy-making is shaped by an interplay between reporters and lobbyists, with ideas and voters entirely cut out. Based on this article, I have no idea if Stark would write good tax law or manage the committee well, I have no idea who the people are that are criticizing him and so the criticisms are entirely devoid of context, and Stark -- Air Force vet, successful businessman, and experienced legislator -- is completely powerless to respond. This unaccountable and unelected system, where industry lobbyists and their incestuous journalistic partners directly contradict the power vested by the public in our elected officials, is why the public hates the Beltway and its trappings of power.

Wow! I'm not even going to try to add anything to that. Maybe we should just listen to that last sentence one last time:
This unaccountable and unelected system, where industry lobbyists and their incestuous journalistic partners directly contradict the power vested by the public in our elected officials, is why the public hates the Beltway and its trappings of power.


Thanks to our colleague John Amato at Crooks and Liars for digging out a June 2008 report by New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, "Culling the Anonymous Sources," on the paper's serious tightening of its use of anonymous sources in the wake of the Jayson Blair fiasco, including rather surprising results from a study he himself requested from students at Columbia University's Journalism School, which suggest that the paper has indeed reduced the use of anonymous sources by something like half.

In conclusion, Hoyt cites a memo recently sent to NYT news-room staffers by Executive Editor Bill Keller:
[H]e said it was “high-minded foolishness” to suggest that The Times or any newspaper forswear them altogether. “The ability to offer protection to a source is an essential of our craft,” he said. “We cannot bring readers the information they want and need to know without sometimes protecting sources who risk reprisals, firing, legal action or, in some parts of the world, their lives when they confide in us.”

That is why it is so critically important that anonymous sources not be used lazily or out of habit, and why, when they really are necessary, readers need to be told as much as possible about why the sources can’t be identified and how they know what they know.

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