by Walter Brasch
One of the basic tenets of journalism ethics and practices is that reporters must keep their distance from news sources.
They’re allowed to be friendly. They’re even allowed to share a meal with a news source. But, they must be independent. It’s a “Caesar’s wife” thing—they must be above suspicion.
This past week, Lara Spencer, co-anchor of ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America,” snuggled up to Donald Trump.
In a photo posted to Instagram, she is seen with her left arm around Trump’s shoulder, her right hand across his stomach. Both are looking at each other and smiling. Spencer posted the following message to the photo: “Can’t beat having the REAL DonaldJTrump on.” She added the emoticon of a smiley face.
When Spencer was anchoring “Inside Edition,” a news-and-gossip half-hour syndicated show that focuses on celebrities, she was mostly deferential to the celebrities. That was expected. Hosts of those shows gain access to their sources not by asking tough questions or raising critical social issues. But, “Good Morning America” is in ABC’s news division, not its entertainment division.
Unfortunately, Spencer isn’t the only one to get close to her news sources. Reporters on the local police beat or who regularly cover local government often have a closer working relationship with their sources than they do with their editors and public. In the nation’s capital, reporters who should know better often attend parties and receptions with our elected officials and various members of the governing establishment. Some have been known to play tennis or go to the same social clubs with news sources. Some even enjoy taking all-expense-paid trips, set up by PR agencies for their clients who are hoping for a good story. The explanation by reporters is that it helps them get closer to their sources to get more information, which they pass onto their readers, listeners, and viewers.
This is plainly bull.
Reporters who get socially close to their sources do so because they enjoy the closeness to celebrities, politicians, business executives, and even PR hacks more than they enjoy talking to the homeless, to the marginally-poor, to those who are citizens with no financial or political power. Reporters assigned to the White House didn’t dig into the facts and challenge Richard Nixon about allegations of a burglary at the Watergate or of a cover-up; that was left to two general assignment reporters, who were mocked and scorned by the nation’s “elite” reporters. Failure of reporters to challenge George W. Bush about reasons for the invasion of Iraq led to the nation becoming involved in a war that cost the lives of 4,425 Americans, and injuries, some life-threatening and permanent, to about 32,000.
Lara Spencer is a broadcast journalism graduate from Penn State. Cuddling up to sources for a photo-op is not what is taught at Penn State. Spencer should have known better.
[In a four-decade career in journalism, Dr. Brasch was a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, multimedia writer-producer, TV writer, and the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania.]