My relationship with the 1st ID gave me this kind of access to Major Gen. Batiste, right. But what did it cost me, ethically?

The public tends to see journalists as seducers, taking subjects into their confidences and getting them – especially politicians – to reveal indiscretions and follies.

In fact, it’s the reverse.

Authority figures know journalists are the most vulnerable, easily seduced people on the planet.

I remember my first time.

His name was Major General John Batiste. Batiste is everything most Army generals are not – personable, polished, articulate and funny.

When Batiste was commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division, deployed to Tikrit, Iraq, in 2005, he invited me – a second-rate reporter with a second-rate news organization – to one of his nightly soirees.

There, he held forth with reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, Army Times, CNN and Fox News.

It was quite a party.

Batiste had his 1st ID public affairs officers research each news agency, and he’d use that intel to lob questions playing to each reporter’s vanity.

My goodness, we were all so smart! We were all so intelligent, witty and important!

We were all completely playing into his hands.

Batiste had done his recon and knew reporters have giant egos that make them vulnerable to being completely co-opted.

His little get-togethers accomplished three things.

They ginned up rivalries among reporters about who knew the most about Iraq, and who had the best access.

Then, they got those reporters to reveal everything they were interested in and working on.

Finally, the sense of being not merely in the company of a two-star general, but being his close personal friend and confidant, was intoxicating.

His pals were going to think long and hard about reporting anything that would embarrass their buddy, John Batiste.

(Full disclosure: Batiste actually did like journalists. After he retired from the army, Batiste became a consultant for CBS News – where he was promptly fired because he couldn’t stop criticizing the Bush Administration’s conduct of the war.)

I bring this up because I saw a little of what happened to me in Rick Redding’s opinion post yesterday about WFPL agreeing to act essentially as a consultant to the Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Council.

The media in this town – across this nation as a whole on a city-to-city basis – is one giant mess. Servile, subservient and completely co-opted.

We have fewer resources than reporters in previous generations. With the advent of the Internet, we don’t know if we’re advocates, investigators or opinionators.

Most of us don’t know much – if anything – about societal fundamentals such as education, finance, technology, government policy, international issues or corporate governance.

As a result, we have a hollowed-out Fourth Estate where news releases have replaced news.

Most of us aren’t even trained as journalists anymore, which I never thought was an issue in the digital age. But in J-school, professors drill into students the finer points of journalistic ethics, or so they tell me. Points such as, “You can’t be friends with the people you cover.”

If you are, this is what they do to you: Public officials will seduce you with, “Oh, you’re too smart and important to be just a reporter. Just an observer. You should come be part of the policy making process. Know what real power feels like.

“You’re so smart! So clever, witty and important!”

What they really think is, “You’re so stupid and vain, and I’m so going to own you.”

The dynamic becomes reporter/politician, with the motivation to do whatever it takes to gain the greatest access on one side, and to do whatever it takes to get favorable coverage on the other side.

The readers? The pubic? The citizenry? Oh, we forget all about them.

The Abramson Administration, especially, was gifted when it came to the care and feeding of the Courier-Journal. As a result CJ reporters missed huge stories that haunt the city today, such as an arena we can’t afford, a Metropolitan Sewer District that was Third-World corrupt, and where consultants were paid commissions for putting a potential $100 million hole in the budget through purchase of rate swaps.

Housing departments that didn’t work, a system that give big bags of cash to Metro Council members and a give-away urban renewal policy built on giving Fourth Street Live to an out-of-town family of billionaires.

And on and on and on.

As time goes on, there is less and less interest among the conventional media in hugely important stories.

When was the last time you saw a bridges story that didn’t come from a news release?

When was the last time the television stations looked at the KFC Yum! Center finances?

Few problems get fixed. No new big businesses move here as downtown office vacancies skyrocket. No bridges get built for 50 years. And when they finally do, the powers that be make the process as opaque as possible.

A city that’s stuck.

Political leaders in this town should be ashamed, as should the media, about where we are today.

Am I exempting Insider Louisville?

No.

We make choices to support private-sector groups and initiatives such as the startup community. We don’t make any money, but the relationships are awfully cozy.

As reader Paul T. Carney noted in our comments section for the story:

At the risk of being rude, how exactly does InsiderLouisville consider itself an objective journalism source? You may not be formally connected to local government, but it appears (from the kind and nature of your stories) that you are quite involved with local business and power politics.

We rationalize it by saying we’d do just about anything to bring people together to create new businesses and get this city growing.

In our defense, when that effort goes astray and a startup such as Impulcity leaves for Cincinnati, we’re the first to report it.

What we absolutely do not do is allow ourselves to forget our role in covering elected officials.

When we encounter them, we will report what they’re doing, saying and proposing.

That’s our role as journalists. That’s what we do.

Other than that, all I can do is wake up every morning and say – as do all my fellow journalists – “I’ll try to do better today.”

_________

Yesterday, WFPL management took issue with Redding’s post, which noted that WFPL reporter Erica Peterson appeared before the Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Council, giving a formal presentation about environmental issues.

Courier-Journal environmental reporter James Bruggers declined the Metro Council invitation.

WFPL editors responded that Bruggers also made formal presentations to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Here is Bruggers’ clarification:

EEC stands for Energy and Environment Cabinet, and it includes the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection. And I did meet once last year with some of the top staff of the DEP last year.
 
It wasn’t testifying before a legislative body or committee of lawmakers or council members. It was merely introducing myself to about 30 staff members of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection and getting a chance to meet some of them for the first time instead of just talking with them on the phone. These are the people who regulate air, water and waste, for example, and have been or are potential sources. I talked about my professional background, how I do my job as a journalist, and how they can best get story ideas and tips to me. I talked about how my job has changed in the 13 years I’ve worked at The Courier-Journal, such as the addition of blogging in 2006, and social media.
 
This is the same sort of basic journo talk and information I’ve conveyed to business and environmental groups as well as in classrooms over the years.
 
While I appreciated the invite from Councilwoman Ward-Pugh, I just didn’t feel comfortable offering any sort of assessment or evaluation of the most important environmental issues facing Louisville to a legislative body with the authority to pass local ordinances on environmental issues. After all, I might be assigned to cover the debate over those potential new ordinances, and in fact have already done so in some cases.
 
I discussed both speaking opportunities with my superiors before making a decision, as I always do in those circumstances.
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Terry Boyd
Terry Boyd has seven years experience as a business/finance journalist, and eight years a military reporter with European Stars and Stripes. As a banking and finance reporter at Business First, Boyd dealt directly with the most influential executives and financiers in Louisville.

2 thoughts on “Terry Boyd: Why real journalists have no 'friends'

  1. Terry, I do see the effort on IL to be one of the better news sources in Louisville, and I guess that’s why I commented on Rick’s story yesterday. It was critical without being self aware. But I appreciate what you said is your de facto mantra, “I’ll try to do better today.” It’s a good one for everybody.

  2. Terry, I do see the effort on IL to be one of the better news sources in Louisville, and I guess that’s why I commented on Rick’s story yesterday. It was critical without being self aware. But I appreciate what you said is your de facto mantra, “I’ll try to do better today.” It’s a good one for everybody.

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