Clay Chandler and What Is Wrong with the Culture of the Washington Post (Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?)
I had a thoughtful email from Ruth Marcus of the print Washington Post, asking why I don't presume that Post reporters are "trying, hard, to do their jobs and, perhaps on deadline, [fall] short of the idea."
Here is what I answered. It goes, I think, to the culture that print Washington Post reporters absorb as they sit in that newsroom and try to maneuver in the Washington snakepit:
Dear Ms. Marcus:
Thanks for your thoughtful and intelligent email, with its question of why, given that "we all write and say and even blog things that we could have done better... you seem always to leap to the assumption that the people making these errors are lazy 'idiots,' to use your favorite term, rather than individuals who are trying, hard, to do their jobs and, perhaps on deadline, fell short of the ideal." It's a good question.
Let me give one of eight or so examples of my personal experiences with *Washington Post* reporters in which I found it impossible to believe that they were "trying, hard, to do their jobs." It is a March 2, 1995 *Washington Post* article by Clay Chandler, "Treasury Aides' Memos Warned of Peso Plunge," about the 1994-1995 Mexican financial crisis, which in the version in the *Post* archives reads:
Treasury Undersecretary Lawrence H. Summers... was warned of potential economic problems in Mexico in at least three separate memos during the eight months before the peso's collapse, according to sources familiar with the documents.... Two of the memos from Summers's subordinates -- one written in April and the other in September -- recommended he pay careful attention to papers written by Rudiger Dornbusch, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist widely respected for his expertise on developing Latin American economies.... A third memo, passed from staff to Summers through Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner in late November, warned that the Mexican economy had seriously deteriorated and recommended the Treasury Department begin "contingency planning" in anticipation of a possible financial slump in the Latin nation.
These documents, whose authenticity was not disputed by Treasury Department officials, could bolster critics of the administration's handling of the Mexican crisis who charge that officials missed warnings of trouble. Treasury Department spokesman Howard Schloss said the memos buttressed the administration's argument that officials were on top of events.... Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), who plans hearings on the administration's handling of the Mexican bailout [said]... "We're getting the runaround.... This is absolute and total nonsense.... I know darn well that the administration received information that should have alerted any prudent person that there were problems with the Mexican economy and then ignored it and withheld it from the Congress."...
A earlier version of the article--the one that made it into the Treasury Department's daily clips--included a short quote from one of the three memos that D'Amato leaked to Chandler: "bottom line: peso overvalued." It's those four words that make me believe that I was the author of the April memo. And the "bottom line: peso overvalued" quote was ripped from context: that wasn't my bottom line, but Rudi Dornbusch's bottom line. My assessment was that Rudi was very smart and thoughtful but wrong, and that the magnitude of capital inflows to Mexico was likely to be large enough to make yet another peso crisis highly unlikely. Would that we in the Treasury staff had been smart enough to warn Larry Summers in April (or even September) 1994 that a peso crisis was likely or even moderately probable rather than, in April, an unlikely possibility and, in September, a possibility. We weren't.
When we went to talk to D'Amato's staff about this, we were told: Save your breath. It's politics. D'Amato doesn't think that staff warned Larry and that he ignored staff. Dole wants to be in a good political position if this Mexico thing goes south in a serious way. I asked the Treasury public relations staff if I should go talk to Chandler, and they said: No. Chandler knew that the "papers" by Rudi Dornbusch weren't private documents written for the Treasury and withheld from Congress, but rather things that the Brookings Institution printed up in editions of 7000 and had prominently discussed in its conference room. Chandler knew that the documents D'Amato leaked to him had no passages that supported D'Amato's "theory" that Larry and Lloyd Bentsen had refused to heed our warnings--if they had such passages, after all, Chandler would have quoted them in his story.
So what was Chandler doing? The assessment of the Treasury public relations staff was that Chandler thought that he had not been getting enough private advance leaks from the Treasury, and was sending us a message: "Nice little Treasury Department you have there. Wouldn't it be a shame if anything happened to it? I'm the Washington Post's chief economics correspondent. I deserve more private leaks. Or I can hurt you: I'll become D'Amato's partisan mouthpiece."
I could multiply examples. Take, oh, the *Washington Post* on February 8, 2005, with Jonathan Weisman's claim that there is "a heated debate among economists... [over whether] stock market... [returns can] meet the president's expectations [of an average return of 6.5% per year]..." Out of all those Weisman talked to the "heated debate" turns out to be (a) me, Dean Baker, Paul Krugman, Doug Fore, Richard Jackson, Ed Keon, Jeremy Siegel, various unnamed economists at the Mannheim Research Institute, Kevin Hassett, and Donald Luskin on the side that the forecast is too optimistic--that stock returns are likely to be lower or economic growth faster than the forecast, or both--(b) Bush's Council of Economic Advisers in the middle, refusing to say that they forecast stock returns to average 6.5% per year if the long-run economic growth rate is 1.9% per year, but saying only that stock returns will be "healthy"; and (c) as defenders of the Bush position only Steve Goss of Social Security (a good guy trapped in an impossible position) and an anonymous "White House economist" who doesn't want to take the reputational hit of having his name revealed.
If there really were a "heated debate among economists," shouldn't Weisman have been able to find one person *outside* the administration--hell, one person *inside* the administration besides Steve Goss--willing to go on the record saying that they endorse the long-run forecast of 1.9% per year real GDP growth and 6.5% per year stock returns? While Weisman is writing his story, I'm getting phone calls from Bush's Council of Economic Advisers asking me to please not say that they made Steve Goss's forecast. They accept it, the CEA says, because it's Steve Goss's bureaucratic role as Chief Social Security Actuary to make the forecast. They do not endorse it.
Now most of my experiences with *Post* reporters have been very pleasant, and most of the time the story that emerges--at least my part of the story--seems fair. But there is a difference between the experiences I have had with a subset of *Post* reporters, like Clay Chandler and company, and the reporters I deal with from the news pages of the *Wall Street Journal,* the *Financial Times,* or the *Economist*--who are genuinely trying their best.
So what am I to conclude when I run into Susan Schmidt and James Grimaldi, who on October 18 write:
...Abramoff, whom DeLay once described as "one of my closest and dearest friends"...
and who last week write:
...DeLay, a Christian conservative, did not quite know what to make of Abramoff, who wore a beard and a yarmulke. They forged political ties, but the two men never became personally close...
Either the first story *requires* an in-line fact-check like "(of course, it is the business of politicians to have hundreds if not thousands of closest and dearest friends)"; or the second *requires* an in-line fact check like "(even though DeLay once described Abramoff as one of his closest and dearest friends)." Without those in-line fact-checks, at least one of the two is highly mendacious. In fact, both probably are: real reporters would include both in-line fact checks.
The accepted narrative among participants at Grover Norquist's weekly breakfast Republican strategy meetings--at least those that I talk to--is that until recently Abramoff has been trying to cling as close to DeLay as possible and has been searching for *complaisant* reporters to help him do so; while DeLay is trying to maximize the distance between him and Abramoff (by, for example, getting Grimaldi to print the false claim that DeLay had broken off all relations with Abramoff in February 2001); but that the truth is that DeLay spent a lot of time with Abramoff and enjoyed it (especially when it involved what Wall Street calls "soft dollar compensation" paid for on Abramoff's credit card), and that Abramoff at the very least found it very useful to convincingly pretend to be close personal friends with DeLay.
If that is the real story--and by now Susan Schmidt and James Grimaldi certainly knows better than I what the real story is--don't they have an obligation to print that? How can I to conclude anything other than that they are writing one thing pleasing to one source in October and another thing pleasing to a different source in December?