Inside Washington journalism

It’s been an interesting few days in Washington.

On July 15, The New York Times reported that journalists in this town were allowing government sources to alter quotes in exchange for interviews. As Washington Bureau Chief for McClatchy, I banned the practice for our reporters on July 20. National Journal and Bloomberg followed suit. But we’re waiting on The Washington Post and The Times.

Sadly, letting the government sanitize quotes is just one of many dirty secrets of Washington journalism.

During the height of the U.S. Attorney’s scandal in 2006 when McClatchy was breaking nearly all of the damning stories that led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, an official from the Justice Department promised us an exclusive leak of government information.

After he provided the details, he went on to tell our reporter: “Highlight this. Disregard this and emphasize that.” When our reporter refused, he said: “You are the most unprofessional journalist I have ever worked with.”

That exchange says leagues about the relationship between sources and the news media.

Now this is hardly a surprise to many of you who have watched as independence and accuracy have waned in the Nation’s Capital. Consider how The New York Times, unlike McClatchy’s predecessor Knight Ridder, failed to check on the Bush Administration’s claims of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq or how the Gray Lady in Manhattan delayed publication of a story on government spying on Americans until after the presidential election in 2004.

I believe that The Times and The Washington Post thrive on their access to high officials in government. But they get that access at a price. And the people lose.

After I issued my edict that prohibits the altering of quotes, I posted my memo on our website.

Then something wonderful happened. As the Internet lit up, we got hundreds of comments on our website, on the sites of that republished my memo and on Twitter. In all but a tiny handful of cases, people applauded McClatchy’s stand, remarking that it was a refreshing commitment of accuracy and independence.

I couldn’t agree more.

Doing journalism in Washington has always been challenging. People in power don’t like critical journalism and they’ve always reacted negatively to stories that challenge their policies or points of view.

Lately though, when the government acts, it does so largely in secret. And official action is rarely accompanied by a robust disclosure of the whys and wherefores behind the decision. Recently, the Obama administration embarked on a quest to investigate and prosecute those who leak unauthorized government information to journalists.

Combine that aggressiveness with the widespread reluctance to talk publicly about The People’s Business, and the air is getting quite chilly for independent journalists here in Washington.

Now add to that toxic mix, the poison of partisanship and a journalistic class that covers the yelling in Washington better than it does the activities of government.

It’s no wonder Americans are fed up with politicians and the press.

Despite this mess, I make this commitment to our readers, and to our citizens: McClatchy journalists will report fairly and independently. We will not make deals with those in power, regardless of party or philosophy.

In addition, the reporters at McClatchy’s Washington Bureau are getting new marching orders. We’ll be reducing the number of stories we do about the ranting in Congress and the spin at the White House. We will devote our considerable skills as journalists to the actions of governments. We’ll tell you what Washington does and how it affects your lives.

Our aim is to tell you before the deed is done and not afterward so you can make your voices heard.

As a standard bearer for the best traditions of believable journalism, McClatchy will stand in your stead, ask the tough questions, seek verifiable facts and act as if our Democracy depends on it.

Because, it does.

Asher is the Washington Bureau chief for the McClatchy Co.