Mar 2, 2011

On writing emails that might get read

Marc Ambinder, White House correspondent at the National Journal, expects some of his emails to Kurt Bardella, former spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, are in the hands of New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, who's writing a book about the coziness between Washington and the Washington press corps. Ambinder doesn't think Leibovich will find them useful. Because while he hopes his sources to be discreet, he doesn't bet on it:
There is a general understanding, a hidden law, a common presupposition, that e-mail isn't intended for forwarding. Reporters and sources have a mutual interest in being honest and upfront with each other, so each assumes that, if they consider the relationship important, they would not violate this implied confidentiality.

This is all an ideal. Unfortunately, a lot of journalists and many sources face extreme pressure to be information dealers, to trade information they get for better information, to "blow up" one source in favor of another. This tension is exacerbated by the competitive landscape for news organizations. Bardella knows that the snowflake scoop, the micro-scoop, the gossamer-thin scoop that leaves no imprint the next day, is the bread and butter of many of a news organization.


When I interact with a source, I hope the source will be discreet - that he or she won't pre-empt my query by giving a story to someone else, or that he or she won't share my style of journalistic flirtation with others.

But I do not expect discretion. I expect just the opposite: I expect my e-mails to be shared with others. I hope they aren't but I write them with the expectation that they will be. That's not ideal, but that's the way it is.

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