< Rolodex Journalism


Friday, July 13, 2012

BOB GARFIELD: On the question of repeatedly relying on the same sources, the Joe the Printer story jogged our memories here this week at OTM. Almost exactly ten years ago, we took a broader look at that very subject in a piece we called “Rolodex Journalism.” Some of the details are a little dated. Peter Goodman is no longer at the Washington Post; he’s now executive business editor of the Huffington Post. And nowadays, when we refer to a Rolodex, it’s more likely to be a metaphor than an actual physical thing that sits on your desk. But the facts still stand in this golden oldie.


CLAUDE RAINS AS CAPTAIN RENAULT: Major Strasser's been shot.


Round up the usual suspects.

BOB GARFIELD: Here's the difference between Captain Renault, Prefect of Casablanca Police, and the media.


Renault had a whistle. Otherwise, the methodology is pretty much the same. A story breaks, expert analysis is required, turn to the Rolodex and round up "the usual suspects." If it's a legal issue, find Alan Dershowitz. If it's an FBI investigation, call ex-G Man James Kallstrom, conservative politics, William Kristol. Advertising? [LAUGHS] Well, modesty forbids.


INTERVIEWER: Are there any advertisers that would say that O.J. Simpson could be good for them?

BOB GARFIELD: Not any advertiser of substance. You, you know, [LAUGHS] this endorsement business is not just about name recognition and, and notoriety. It's about respect and credibility, and likability. And O.J. is never going to regain that. Seventy percent of the American people still think the guy got away with murder. And it's just not going to happen. You know, they could acquit the Menendez brothers too, but they're not gonna be the Doublemint Twins.


BOB GARFIELD: Did whoever called me to book that interview call me because I was involved in the O.J. story? No. Because I'd written something especially trenchant on the subject? No! Because I was just the right person to provide context and detail? No. It was because the story concerned advertising pitchmen, and in her Rolodex under “A for Advertising” she found my name.

And it happens every day in broadcast, in print thousands and thousands of times, with varying degrees of suitability and a whole lot of deja vu. Robert Thompson is a professor of journalism and mass media at Syracuse University.

ROBERT THOMPSON: Because journalism goes off at the alarmingly quick rate that it does, people do collect Rolodexes. There are people they know they can get a hold of on a moment's notice, and I think there, there is this kind of aristocracy of commentators that gets created as a result of it.

BOB GARFIELD: I myself have landed in that Burke's Peerage of punditry, but there's another one of my peers who is really without peer. He is Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and probably the most quoted non-government official in Washington. He may be listed in a lot of Rolodexes under “P for Politics” and say, “C for Congress.” He should be under “O,” not for Ornstein but for “O negative.” He's the universal donor, spilling his life's blood two to three- thousand times a year. In the past two weeks, he's been flooded with calls about homeland security, but —

NORMAN J. ORNSTEIN: I've had calls on the budget. I've done phone calls on Ben Gilman. I've done things on the Farm Bill.

BOB GARFIELD: You get the point. And Ornstein gets the calls because he's a dependable source on damn near anything, which is handy but, in terms of broadening debate on a given subject, not necessarily ideal. 

Furthermore, there's the question of actual reporting versus just filling in the blanks. Not to point any fingers, but let's just say it isn't too hard to write a story before conducting an interview, leaving spaces with notations like "Ornstein quote here." The king of quotes himself acknowledges that.

NORMAN J. ORNSTEIN: I find now, compared to 10, 15, 20 years ago, a lot more laziness on the part of reporters, people who turn to the same sources because they pretty much know what they're gonna get, and there isn't any use in lookin’ around.

BOB GARFIELD: The result, says Professor Thompson, is the usual suspects phenomenon which, for all its advantages to reporters and producers, can be antithetical to genuine inquiry.

ROBERT THOMPSON: I think the Rolodex in the end becomes part of the — is one of the most important tools in the toolbox of a good journalist. I think what we may be looking for is a need for that Rolodex to have a more diverse set of voices within it.

BOB GARFIELD: For instance, a search of the New York Times database for the past two years yields 42 stories quoting consumer advocate Gene Kimmelman, head of the Washington office of the Consumer's Union. Now, Washington is just lousy with consumer advocates, but Kimmelman rules.

Of course [LAUGHS] The Times has nothing on the Washington Post which, in the same period, quoted Kimmelman 58 times, including on January 23rd, 2001 an astonishing 3 times in three separate stories, all on section fronts. That's right, the coveted trifecta.

Kimmelman chuckled over his breakfast. Meanwhile, in the Washington Post newsroom reporter Peter Goodman ambivalently accepted the congratulations of his colleagues, because while Kimmelman was the horse that won three races in one day, Goodman was the jockey in the mount. Yes, one reporter wrote all three stories quoting the same man.

PETER GOODMAN: It's both an anomaly and a symptom of a larger problem. There is no question that the beat reporter in Washington is harried and frantic and is too prone to doing the easiest thing which, in this case was reaching someone who's, you know, delightfully easy to get a hold of and who gives good quote. So for that, I'm guilty. We, the members of the media, are guilty.

And, you know, I could have — I, I [LAUGHS] should — let's be real. You know, I should have worked harder to get some other voices in the paper. [LAUGHS]

BOB GARFIELD: You can't much fault Goodman, to switch back to Professor Thompson's metaphor, if he is guilty of nothing more than using the right tool for the job on three separate jobs that happened to coincide. If the job calls for a hammer, you grab a hammer. What reporters and producers need to do, Thompson says, is to keep a large and diverse toolbox, so that they're not using a hammer to put in a screw.

Strangely, the biggest toolboxes of all probably belong to cable news. For all its notorious sensationalism and superficiality, cable may provide more diversity of expert analysis than the largest newspapers, owing not to its nuanced coverage — we know it doesn't provide that — but simply to its insatiable appetite for ever-more experts to fill all those chairs, on camera, 24 hours a day.

Each network has a central database of 50,000 names. So precious is his Rolodex collection to Fox News Channel's chief booker Eric Spinato that each evening before he leaves work, he places his under lock and key.

ERIC SPINATO: It could be a janitor. I don't know who's looking through my Rolodexes. They could then take someone's home number that, if they trusted me with it, how am I — I'm, I'm being negligent by leaving it out for others to scour through.

BOB GARFIELD: Imagine this scenario:  You're at the beach. Your wife is standing with her back to the ocean. Next to her are your seven Rolodexes. You see a huge wave gathering and it's just about to break. What do you do?

ERIC SPINATO: [LAUGHS] Grab the Rolodexes in one hand and grab the wife's hand on the other and leave. The Rolodexes is our life.


BOB GARFIELD: That's because while the problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, the fate of 50,000 experts and pundits could affect the Hannity & Colmes show and Special Report with Brit Hume and The O'Reilly Factor — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but someday and for the rest of your life.