As media evolves, many journalists are looking for new ways to improve efficiency. For instance, Ken Dilanian—current AP reporter and former L.A. Times writer—often lets his sources at the Central Intelligence Agency exercise editorial control over stories about them.
A new Intercept post by security reporter Ken Silverstein—who's done some serious work on reporters' and think-tankers' coziness with flacks in the past—reveals a series of emails between Dilanian and public affairs officers at the CIA suggesting that the reporter "enjoyed a closely collaborative relationship with the agency, explicitly promising positive news coverage and sometimes sending the press office entire story drafts for review prior to publication."
Running quotes or ideas by sources to make sure you have the facts straight is one thing; what Dilanian's emails show is quite another. "Of course, journalists routinely curry favor with government sources (and others) by falsely suggesting that they intend to amplify the official point of view," Silverstein writes. "But the emails show that Dilanian really meant it":
"I'm working on a story about congressional oversight of drone strikes that can present a good opportunity for you guys," Dilanian wrote in one email to a CIA press officer, explaining that what he intended to report would be "reassuring to the public" about CIA drone strikes. In another, after a series of back-and-forth emails about a pending story on CIA operations in Yemen, he sent a full draft of an unpublished report along with the subject line, "does this look better?" In another, he directly asks the flack: "You wouldn't put out disinformation on this, would you?"
In one case, for example, Dilanian's deference to CIA flacks led him to underreport the damage done in drone attacks to kill an Al Qaeda militant, Abu Yahya al-Libi, in Pakistan. His story, with language approved by CIA, suggested al-Libi was the only person killed in those attacks; but multiple independent reports suggest up to 20 were killed, many of them likely innocent rescuers at the scene.
Letting sources see a full story pre-publication is a big no-no in journalism; at best, its disclosure makes the reporter appear compromised. At worst, the sources can craft a pre-emptive PR response or put pressure on reporters to soften critical language. The hazards increase geometrically on a highly sensitive beat, especially when you're collaborating with public relations people and not operators in the field. They generally can't give you much information of value, but they can exert a lot of pushback and provide warmed-over cliche quotes.
The emails cover only a few months of Dilanian's tenure at the Times in 2012. And Silverstein points out that much of Dilanian's work has valuable, some of it even critical of the CIA. But Silverstein, who obtained the emails under a FOIA request, has 574 pages of communications between the agency and multiple reporters, not just Dilanian, asking for info, exchanging jokes, and agreeing to off-the-record dinners with then-CIA director David Petraeus. The problem, it seems, is not so much a single journalist as an entire industry's reliance on government cooperation for sometimes-dubious stories.
[Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons]