One of the first things I learned from journalism professors and city editors was never to bargain with a news source about how a story would be written. The reporter’s job was to listen, transcribe, write, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Well, at least that’s how it used to be.

To be fair, even in the good old days of journalism, this was a standard often honored in the breach. Beat reporters often got chummy with their sources, so much so that they felt no compunction against, in effect, taking dictation and putting it in the pages of their newspaper.

The carrot to the susceptible reporter was access, exclusive info, and a chance to be “on the inside.” Once that bridge is crossed, though, one is no longer a reporter with independent judgment.

Most young reporters back in the day would look down their noses at the old hands who had lost the bloodhound instinct, content to be more of a lap dog than a watchdog to their “friends” in city hall or in the legislature. Nowadays, however, it’s the younger reporters who see this approach to journalism as alluring, not anathema.

When the website Gawker filed a Freedom of Information Act request for email from Hillary Clinton’s former State Department spokesman, Philippe Reines, they discovered that this kind of journalism, often called “transactional” journalism, was quite common among the Washington press corps.

Marc Ambinder, a contributing editor of The Atlantic and editor-at-large of
The Week, a British news weekly with an edition in the U.S., was shown to have used actual wording “suggested” by Reines in exchange for an early transcript of a Clinton speech.

Reines told Ambinder to use the word “muscular” “in your own voice” to describe Clinton’s position. Ambinder also was told to mention that Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, and Dennis Ross, diplomatic heavyweights, were present for the speech.

At the end of his email to Ambinder, Reines specified this condition: “You don’t say you were blackmailed.” Ambinder’s email response: “got it.” And he did as he was told.

Several other outlets also used the word “muscular” and mentioned the arrayed diplomatic heavyweights, evidencing the incestuous nature of the mainstream media. Gawker also found emails of similar incidents involving Mike Allen, chief political reporter at the Politico website, and Reines.

It’s unclear whether these cases of “transactional” journalism did any further damage to the credibility of a mainstream news media whose integrity and honesty already are damaged nearly beyond repair.

Jon Ham (@rivlax) is a vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.