In today's Washington Post, Dana Milbank devotes a column to complaining that at the Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama "put on a clinic for some of the world's greatest dictators in how to circumvent a free press." The problem, it seems was that there weren't enough sessions open to the media, so they could assemble quotes for their stories.
In other words, Milbank (and he no doubt speaks for some other reporters as well) wants more theater. No one would claim that a session in which a number of the leaders talked with each other in front of the cameras would be anything else -- but it would make it a lot easier to write a story about the summit. You could go to the event, take down what everyone said, and write your story. Either way, the real work would be done when the cameras are off. But without that event, reporters are going to have to work harder -- and maybe spend more time on the substance of the issue.
Not that you'll get that from Milbank in any case -- you're as likely to find an in-depth discussion of the substance of policy on Tila Tequila's Twitter feed as you are in his column on any given day. But the point is this: openness is much more important when it comes to results than to process. If you stuck cameras in every meeting government undertakes, those meetings would simply become an opportunity for people to play to the cameras, and nothing much would actually get done. Yes, we need to understand who's talking to whom, and what's being done for whom. But the real question is what emerges from the process.
I can hear someone protesting, "But wait -- didn't you criticize Dick Cheney for refusing to say which oil company executives he met with while assembling the Bush administration's energy plan?" Yes I did. But no one was asking for a recording of what they talked about, as interesting as that might have been. All anyone wanted to know was who was there. Cheney refused to divulge even that, saying that he couldn't get "unvarnished advice" from oil company executives if the public knew he was meeting with them. It's important to know who Obama meets with and what emerges from those discussions. But we can't expect that every word will be recorded.
The press and the government engage in a bargain: the government stages a facsimile of the meetings at which actual things happen (e.g., the standard photo op with the president and a world leader sitting in those two chairs in front of the fire), and the press takes pictures and pretends, at least on a visual level, that the facsimile is the meeting at which actual things happen. It works for everyone. Obama doesn't seem to be holding up his end of that bargain, at least not to some people's satisfaction. But I suspect the republic will survive.
-- Paul Waldman
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