whom does a White House reporter represent?

Another person who spoke on Saturday at Penn State was David E. Sanger, the chief White House correspondent of the New York Times. After his speech, I asked him whom he thought he represented when he rode on Air Force One or sat in the White House briefing room. He replied, “You always represent your readers.” I asked him who he wished his readers were. I was wondering, for instance, whether he would like to reach (and therefore “represent”) a cross-section of the whole national population, if that were possible. He replied that Times readers are always going to be unusual in some respects. They have a high median level of education and tend to have especially enjoyed their own college experiences. He argued that skew was acceptable as long as everyone can get access to the Times, which is easy now via the website.

That’s a plausible answer. It’s better than claiming that the Times only serves the truth. Despite its slogan (“All the News that’s Fit to Print”), the newspaper obviously makes choices about what stories to cover and whom to interview, based on value-judgments about what is most important. Sanger had conceded that point in earlier comments.

I can imagine a reporter saying that he represents no one, or only his employer. But that would raise questions about why he should have access to the president of the United States. I can also imagine a New York Times reporter saying that she represents “the American people.” That’s consistent with the Times’ image as an objective source of information for any citizen (regardless of creed, region, or party) who wants to make independent decisions. I’ve previously quoted Adolph Ochs, who said, when he bought the Times in 1896, that he intended to “give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved; to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” That’s a high ideal, and it reflects a kind of implicit contract between the whole public and the Times’ reporters. That contract has come into question with recent scandals, but I don’t think that tighter ethical rules would fully resolve the problem. The Times cannot represent the whole American people if the 1.1 million people who buy it are skewed by class, ideology, and region. It could struggle to make its readership nationally representative, but that would probably require a change of tone, topics, and perspective. Perhaps it is best to say, as Sanger did, that he simply represents his readers and welcomes anyone to join their company.

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2 Responses to whom does a White House reporter represent?

  1. Marcus Stanley says:

    I think the Times also has an implicit contract with central (state) power that Sanger was not as clear or direct about. If only to maintain source access, although the Federal government has many other avenues through which it can affect the economic interests of the Times beyond access to high-level sources. A simple consumer sovereignty story, even though it is less idealistic than the “public interest” line, still strikes me as somewhat idealistic and simplistic.

  2. Peter Levine says:

    Marcus,

    I agree, and thanks for making the issue explicit. Sanger has a contract with the New York Times Company, which must please its readers. But that contract is of no relevance to the US Government. All presidents have a motive to give special access to the Times: it reaches 1.1 million people who have disproportionate influence thanks to their wealth and education. That’s a motive but not a justification for allowing Mr. Sanger to ride on Air Force One. The best justification I can think of is an implicit contract between the New York Times and the American people. But if that’s the rationale, then the Times should strive to represent the whole people, not merely its existing readers.

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