Let’s talk about media leaks

The new, and supremely unqualified, White House communications honcho Anthony Scaramucci threw a public fit this week when some media types got hold of his financial disclosure form. He called it an unauthorized leak and saying he was gonna find out who did it and file charges.

Of course, this end up being a blinding display of ignorance and incompetence, as said form was already in the public domain. But this is what you get when you put a hedge fund manager in charge of political communications, rather like the result you’d get putting a mechanical engineer in charge of heart surgery. Just because you’re smart at one thing doesn’t mean you’re qualified to do something completely different.

As for the leaks coming out of the White House, Congress and the various executive branch departments…well, duh, what did you expect? Leaks happen. Leaks are currency, man. So long as people have agendas and/or axes to grind — and the Trump Administration is causing a run on grindstones all over town — there’s gonna be leaks.

And here’s the thing: In many cases, leaks aren’t bad in and of themselves. We wouldn’t have known about Watergate without leaks. Or Iraq’s lack of weapons of mass destruction. Yes, they can be weaponized to drag people down — ref. Clinton, William Jefferson, who of course should’ve kept it in his pants in the first place. And yes, on very rare occasion, leaks can cause real damage to American interests and lives.

But let’s be super clear. Those occasions are exceedingly rare, and the vast majority of responsible journalists will hold off on publishing leaked information if it impacts intelligence gathering, military operations, court proceedings, etc. There’s an entire system of informal exchanges that happen in these cases; for example. rumor has it The Washington Post is sitting on some great dirt on Trump and not publishing it at the request of special counsel Robert Mueller because it would screw up his investigation.

Now, I didn’t cover much of Washington back in my journalism days, but I did get leaks on the business beat. And I found that they tend to fall into three categories. Read on for some serious journalism wonkery!

First off, there are official leaksYes, there are times when a government agency (or company) wants to get word out about something without putting out a formal statement or holding a press conference. For example, a company I covered was involved in legal proceedings of a very public and sensitive nature, and wanted to pressure the other side to come to the bargaining table. So I got a call from someone “close to the company’s legal team” and we talked it out. I then confirmed it with a second source — even though it was an official leak — because that’s what you do.

Of course, I asked, “You’re totally using this to get the other side to come to the bargaining table, right?” Long pause, then: “We believe a settlement is in everyone’s best interest.”

Well, duh. If it saved you a couple billion, of course you’d think that.

Official leaks happen all the time in Washington. You read all those political stories citing unnamed sources, chances are many of them are official leaks, made to further the official agenda. Leaking the news that, say, a rogue nation has developed ICBM capabilities does a lot of things. It pressures political allies to fall into line to deal with the threat. It signals to said rogue nation that, yeah, we see you and we’ll reduce you to ash if we have to. It rallies public opinion.

Some leaks are what we call trial balloons. Let’s say the administration or Congress wants to create or repeal a government program. They leak that said program is “under consideration” and give some details, but they don’t put their names to it. If the trial balloon floats — i.e., the news generates positive public opinion — then the officials can go ahead and do it. If the balloon is shot down, then those involved in the effort can quietly shelve it without publicly supporting something that nobody liked.

So that’s the official leak. Then there’s unofficial leaksThose are the ones that piss people off, because nobody was supposed to know, except that someone within the organization really didn’t like the idea, or the people involved, and wanted to put it out into the light of day. That’s your Deep Throat from Watergate, for example. I got a few of those on the business beat, largely from folks who disagreed with a company initiative or saw a worrisome trend that wasn’t getting attention in-house — or, yeah, they wanted to stab someone in the back.

Now, these you treat super carefully, because motives are rarely pure and some leaks don’t rise to the level of newsworthiness. An executive or official sleeping around? Not newsworthy. An executive or official sleeping around and using the company/taxpayer dime to do it, or abrogating his or her duty in order to do it? Newsworthy. An official who potentially and allegedly violates the law to hide said sleeping around? Very newsworthy.

And yes, some folks will leak falsehoods. That’s why you do your homework and confirm the story. That’s why good reporters will cite at least two unnamed sources per story, because there’s nothing that will enrage a reporter more than being used to spread lies.

Naturally, the Trump Administration hates unofficial leaks, but they have only themselves to blame. When the President goes around publicly humiliating the intelligence community, the military, the Justice Department, individual senators or congressmen and pretty much anyone who irritated him that day, well…what do you expect? The knives come out. If Scaramucci wants to tamp down on leaks, maybe get the President to not piss people off. (Ha ha. Yeah.)

And yes, there are career civil servants in the various executive departments, and on Capitol Hill, who see these clowns trying to govern via id and Twitter and aren’t gonna take it lying down. Republicans and Democrats alike are broken faucets these days, because they see the President undermining so much of the normal functioning of government and diplomacy. Are they vested in that system and afraid for their pensions? Sure they are. But bear in mind, they’re also risking their jobs to get that information out there, so it’s not all just self-interest.

Finally, there’s what I’d like to call detective leaksfor want of a better word. (And seriously, I’m not keen on the label, but can’t think of a better term.) This is when a journalist pieces together information, public or otherwise, from various sources, comes to a conclusion, and forces the government’s (or company’s) hand into putting the information out there.

Here’s an example. When I started on the business beat for the AP, I spent a few weeks doing a bunch of informational interviews with a broad swath of company executives and managers. The company set it up, because an informed journalist is better than one who’s not. I must’ve talked to a dozen people across all kinds of divisions. Talked about what they were working on, what they saw for the future, the company’s direction, etc.

And as I looked at my notes, I saw something. This particular company was putting together something big. There were pieces of it across seemingly unrelated divisions, all driving toward a particular initiative — something that was well outside the company’s bread-and-butter products and services, and something that would challenge a broad array of other companies throughout the industry.

So I called back each of those folks and asked them about it. I got many “no comments,” but a few senior folks were willing to go “on background” to talk to me further — largely to get the story right. (“On background,” by the way, is the term we use for being a source. Those “administration officials” and “people close to” spoke on background.)

And then I ran the story. In all honestly, it didn’t get much play, though a couple of Wall Street analysts made note of it. But six months later, the company made a huge announcement. And I had everything right except the name of the initiative. Because the marketing folks changed it last-minute.

Oh, and after that bit of detective work, I got my calls returned post-haste.

So yeah. Journalists can force leaks through sound investigation and detective work, too. Woodward and Bernstein benefited from all three kinds of leaks, too. Of course, Deep Throat was their unofficial leaker, but he came into the picture after a lot of detective work on their part, and the Nixon Administration’s responses to all of that were, in many cases, in the form of official leaks.

Sometimes, unofficial leaks or detective leaks will be countered with official leaks, too! I had a line on another story where I did my homework, got some folks on background, was putting together something great. Being a good reporter, I called the company to confirm or deny, and they said they’d get back to me in an hour. Fifty-five minutes later (and yes, I checked), a rival news organization ran with my story! Turns out, the company brass was concerned that my piece wouldn’t make them look shiny, so they went to another reporter whom they felt would be more kind to them.

That was, by the way, one of the very few times where I yelled at anybody’s media relations folks. It was dirty pool. I mean, I totally get why they did it. But still…not cool at all. The whole newsroom stared at me. My editor clapped when I hung up.

Anyway, that’s how leaks work. That’s how journalists use them — and how governments and businesses and prosecutors and defense lawyers and anybody else in the news uses them. It’s a two-way street.

Of course Trump is gonna hate leaks. Obama famously hated them, too. Nobody likes seeing dirty laundry aired. But here’s a bit of advice to Scaramucci — you can’t stop it. The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems leaks slip through your fingers. The harder you crack down, the more disgruntled people you create, and the more leaks you’ll get. You’ll never stop it unless you pretty much stop telling anybody anything — especially Congress. (Seriously, so much comes from Hill staffers, and sometimes from elected officials themselves.) You can’t govern without a flow of communication, and leaks come part and parcel with that.

Oh, and really, stop pissing people off.

On second thought, belay that last item. Go ahead. Keep Trump tweeting. With any luck, it’ll hasten the end of this particular national nightmare.


Filed under Politics, Rant

2 responses to “Let’s talk about media leaks

  1. Good stuff.

    I am surprised you gave them the hour vs a straight up or down, take it or leave it, I’m filing now, sort of thing.

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