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Learned Helplessness in the Washington Press Corps

Zachary Roth explains why the Washington press corps as we know it needs to vanish quickly and quietly: "There's almost no acceptable way for a mainstream reporter to explicitly tell readers that the information being put out by a powerful office-holder may be false or misleading..."

And so Roth shows us that Jonathan Martin, Andy Barr, Ben Smith, the editors of Politico who send previous versions of the organization's work down the memory hole, Mike Viqueira, Chris Cillizza, Will Haygood, and Susan Davis all need to have their brains scrubbed by webloggers with bristle brushes.

Roth reads the Politico's (and others') reporting of Mark Sanford:

Media Recap: Credulous Press Ate Up Spin From Sanford's Office: Now that the dust has settled -- at least for a few hours -- on the tale of the love-struck guv, it's worth focusing on another angle: the shockingly credulous news coverage of the story. Throughout Monday and Tuesday, there were pretty good reasons to be skeptical of the ever-changing official line that Sanford's office was putting out. After all, here's how things went down, in a nutshell:

By Monday, the governor had been unreachable for four days, without his security detail, and without transferring power to the state number 2. His office put out a comically vague statement that afternoon saying he needed to "recharge after the stimulus battle." His wife, meanwhile, had said she didn't know where he was but that he was "writing something and wanted some space to get away from the kids" -- on Father's Day. Next the Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer's office told reporters that the governor's office said they'd spoken to Sanford and knew his whereabouts, only to be contradicted a little over an hour later by the governor's office, now saying it never said it had spoken to Sanford. That night, Bauer's office issued a statement charging the governor's office with giving out misleading information. Shortly afterwards, a new statement from Sanford's office: he's hiking the Appalachian Trail - which, conveniently, is 2500 miles long. No location was specified, and no one seemed to have seen the governor making preparations for the trip. The next morning, Sanford's office issued yet another statement saying Sanford had called the office, that he was "taken aback" by the fuss, and would be back at work Wednesday. But still no specifics on where exactly he was.

It's fair to say you didn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to think there might be something fishy going on here. We followed the evolving story with a series of skeptical posts on both TPM and TPMmuckraker. But some mainstream outlets didn't quite see things that way. Politico's performance was maybe the funniest. On Monday afternoon, they were told by Sanford's office that he had gone "out of pocket" to "clear his head" and that before leaving town last week he "let staff know his whereabouts and that he'd be difficult to reach." That was good enough for Jonathan Martin and Andy Barr, who dutifully reported:

South Carolina GOP Gov. Mark Sanford is safe and secure, his office said Monday afternoon, moving to tamp down speculation that he had gone missing.

For good measure, they even threw in some spin from "Sanford allies," suggesting that the story was being manufactured by state Sen. Jake Knotts, a Sanford antagonist. "It was Knotts," noted Politico, "who provided the only on-record confirmation of Sanford's absence to The State newspaper, prompting nationwide buzz about the unlikely story of the disappearing governor."

But a few hours later, amid Monday night's back and forth between Sanford's and Bauer's offices, Politico seemed to realize it had goofed, replacing its original story to a far more skeptical one which no longer contained the reference to the governor being safe and secure. (Politico didn't let its readers in on the evolving process, of course. It removed the original story by "updating" it to create the new one. The original story is preserved only thanks to the wonders of syndication.)

Later that night, after we'd been fed the Appalachian Trail line by Sanford's office, Politico's Ben Smith headlined his post "Found." (Remember, no one, not even Sanford's office, was claiming to have actually seen the guv since Thursday. They just said he'd called in.) Under that, he wrote:

Sanford is off hiking the Appalachian Trail, according to his spokesman.

This may be eccentric enough to disqualify him from national office; it also inspires a bit of envy on my part, at least.

Yes, lucky old Sanford, hiking away in solitude. The next morning, Smith placed an asterisk next to "Found" and added an update that only confused things further: "Readers point out that he was more "located" than actually 'found.'"

Smith was hardly the only one to buy the Appalachian Trail line. On The Today Show Tuesday morning, NBC's Mike Viqueira crowed: "It's a mystery solved!"

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza -- in a Tuesday morning post hilariously headlined "Sanford Returns!" -- reported that Sanford "will return to the state tomorrow after spending the last five days hiking the Appalachian Trail, according to a statement released by his office this morning."

In fact, the Post fell so hard for the Appalachian Trail line that they even ran a story -- "For the Gov, A Little Me Time," by reporter Will Haygood, highlighting the quirkiness of Sanford's decision to "trek off into the woods," without ever stopping to ask whether tale was true. For good measure, the story reported: "The governor, it should be noted, is quite happily married" -- something it had no way of knowing.

And the Wall Street Journal headlined its post: "Once Lost, Gov. Sanford Is Now Found," and wrote a lede similar to Cillizza's.

There's a larger point here than just, we were right and you were wrong (really there is).

None of these are the biggest crimes in the world, but still: It feels absurd to have to point this out, but politicians and their staffers frequently have reason to dissemble, about issues far more important than an extra-marital affair. Too often, though, the press treats public statements from elected officials' offices -- especially those purporting simply to provide information, like the Appalachian Trail line -- as self-evidently accurate. It's as if, despite everything, some in the press can't quite bring themselves to believe that politicians might try to mislead people.

Part of this is structural. There's almost no acceptable way for a mainstream reporter to explicitly tell readers that the information being put out by a powerful office-holder may be false or misleading. But the only way that this structural flaw will change is if individual reporters are willing to stick out their necks to change it.

Until then, people will read blogs for stories like these.