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Campaign officials like to spin reporters in private. That’s worth making public.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald attends the TimesTalks at The New School on February 12, 2015, in New York City.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald attends the TimesTalks at The New School on February 12, 2015, in New York City.
Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images

It's not every day that I get attacked by a Pulitzer Prize winner over my journalistic standards. That's what Glenn Greenwald, famous for being NSA leaker Edward Snowden's conduit, did last night on Twitter. He was wrong.

First, my crime: Agreeing to let senior Clinton aides speak on the condition of anonymity and then attributing what they said about their view of the state of the race and other matters only to senior campaign officials.

Greenwald's first tweet was mocking.

We exchanged a few tweets back and forth, but 140 characters is too short for a full explanation and defense of using anonymous sources and "background" material in a story. Greenwald's argument rests on the premise that allowing people to speak without attribution is a sucker move that allows them to gain an advantage by saying things that aren't true without repercussions.

The practice can also dilute the value of anonymous sources who fear for their safety or livelihoods when they blow the whistle on wrongdoing — a neighborhood Greenwald has lived in for a long time. But he ignores the value of background sources in everyday beat reporting, as well as the fundamental difference between reporting on campaigns and reporting on government.

What happened?

The Clinton campaign invited reporters to come to campaign headquarters in Brooklyn Thursday for a background session with senior campaign officials. All of the roughly three dozen reporters who showed up understood they weren't going to be getting a lot of attributable material before they arrived.

Though the names of the aides can't be published under the rules of the agreement, there's nothing evasive, in this case, about describing them as senior officials. As the session started, another ground rule was added by the campaign: no direct quotes.

Paranoid? Yes. Par for the course? Yes. Sinister? No.

These officials are people who could easily avoid interacting with reporters for the entire campaign if they so chose. Given the option of talking to them or not, major news organizations chose the former.

The session lasted more than an hour, and they were asked about strategy, fundraising, Clinton's positions on certain policy, and the questions of conflicts of interest that have arisen because she and her husband have raised so much campaign, foundation, and personal money from people with business before the government.

On many scores, the answers were unsatisfactory. The big news, according to some reports, was that Bill and Chelsea Clinton will attend Hillary's big kickoff speech on June 13.

The officials dodged on conflicts of interest, maintaining that Americans will view Clinton as a champion for them and not "special interests." While it's not surprising they would say that, reporters ask questions both because predictable responses can be assessed against future realities and because someone might just say something unexpected. The officials also acknowledged the campaign effort is likely to cost between $1 billion and $2 billion.

All of that's worth knowing.

Often, reporters hold onto information from briefings like this and weave it into later stories. But many of the reporters in the room yesterday at Clinton headquarters wrote up what was said and attributed it to Clinton officials. The approach at Vox was to be as clear as possible at each turn that the views expressed were those of campaign officials, leaving it to the reader to decide whether the claims were credible. Greenwald was able to decipher that the officials were less than forthcoming. Amy Chozick and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times wrote that candor was in short supply.

Gleaning information

One of the questions that have concerned Democrats in recent years is whether Clinton has learned anything from her 2008 loss.

On that, the officials were somewhat more open than on other topics, indicating they won't raise general election money that can't be used in a primary for a while (a big mistake in 2008), that Clinton is refusing to be controlled by her campaign (a bigger mistake in 2008), and that she won't get caught misunderstanding the importance of how the system of winning delegates for the convention works (the biggest mistake of 2008).

Ironically, she's running the race she should have run last time — perhaps fighting the last war — in a campaign in which she does not appear to have a legitimate rival for the nomination.

There's value in understanding that, too.

Beat reporting

When reporters cover an institution — whether it's a government agency, a corporation, or, say, an international governing body for soccer — they have to find ways to get the institution to state its position on various topics, policies, and controversies. That can be difficult. No one has to talk. And while it would be nice for someone else to do that scut work, the Greenwalds of the world wouldn't be able to do what they do without it.

How would anyone know when public figures aren't living up to their own standards without knowing what the official line is and whether it's changing over time? Their own standards certainly aren't the only ones that matter, but they're an important part of the mix when it comes to reporting on their successes and failures.

By talking to senior campaign officials, reporters get the baseline. There's a difference between Clinton saying something on the record and her aides saying it under the cover of anonymity — it affords her an inch or two of distance — but it's not an earth-shaking, journalism-on-the-brink kind of difference.

The most important distinction

The government or a corporation can be judged on its policies and its actions. The very nature of a campaign is different.

During the campaign, the candidate doesn't have the power to implement those policies. On most scores, candidates have to be assessed on what they are promising to do — essentially on what they are saying. That means what they say matters. The anonymous advisers are a Splenda to the cane sugar of the candidate, but their message is the candidate's message.

Again, that's worth knowing. And when it doesn't stack up to reality, it's pretty obvious. In yesterday's Vox story, every bit of information was attributed to these anonymous officials. Greenwald took that to mean the story was no better than a press release. It's a reasonable criticism, but it misses the mark not just for the reasons outlined above. Rather than being credulous, the careful attribution suggests the opposite. This is what they are saying, not necessarily what they believe or what is true.

The story also observed the "split-screen" nature of a campaign that has compartmentalized the conflict-of-interest questions and is all but ignoring them publicly. That may be an untenable formula, but it's a familiar one in Clintonworld.

Whatever one thinks of Greenwald's methods, the revelations he brought to the world about NSA spying were valuable in reshaping and reinvigorating the national and international debate over civil liberties and the security state. Just like senior Clinton campaign officials, he's worth listening to. But he's applying his ideology about journalism to a situation it doesn't fit. In that way, he misses the mark.

The fundamental power of journalism is to take information from a small number of people and give it to a larger number of people in the hope and belief that an informed polity will make wise decisions about who gets which powers. Reporting on the official line of a campaign is one of the many avenues of journalism that fits that description.

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