Thursday, March 16, 2017

CYA in Trump's "Dishonest Media" Climate

So when I was a sprightly, ruddy-faced child out of college, my late father imparted some wisdom that has governed my career. And to paint this scene fully, my dad looked, acted and sounded like Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Ship Enterprise (no, that's not a joke).

When he wanted to have a "serious" discussion with me, he'd call me over to the dining room table, and I would sit expectantly and silently and wait for him to clear his throat.

"Cover your ass."

Now this made me sit up in my chair a little, because my dad was a pastor, and wow, that one was a shocker.

"What did you say, Dad???"

"Cover. Your. Ass. It's the only way you're going to make it in today's world. And you know how you do that? You keep handwritten notes on everything, and you keep them in this nice file ..."

(at this point, he pulled out a prepared manila file folder, on which he had very neatly written, "Heidi's CYA File") ...

"You keep them in this nice file, and then when anybody tries to say they didn't tell you what they really told you or tries to say you misunderstood or tries to say that you ... sorry, kid, but I have to use this language ... that you 'fucked up,' then you pull out your file here. And you put your notes, that are dated, and you say, 'Oh no. I think you're mistaken.' And after anyone tells you something, if it's your boss, you send them a note explaining what you think you heard, and you date it, and you put it in an office CYA folder, too."

You know what, my dad died 26 years ago, about four years after that little speech, and I have implemented his CYA advice every day.

Which brings me to today's sermon for you, my fellow journalists:

In today's manic environment ,where we have a sitting U.S. President that is churning public opinion against the free press, COVER. YOUR. ASS.

Since Trump took office, I have started to see a disconcerting trend among people I interview for stories, especially if they are affiliated with the U.S. government in some manner. They are starting to accuse me of misquoting them or misrepresenting what they actually said.

Now understand this. I've been doing this job for 27 years, and I type as I interview people at a conversational rate. I average about 80 words per minute.

But even with my lickety-split typing skills, when I saw how Trump was attacking "the dishonest media," I decided to go one step further. I started asking for people to answer questions via email. This is a common practice nowadays among slap-dash, green journalists, and for the most part, I disagree with it. I think it's lazy. I much prefer phone conversations.


Trump has shifted the sands in our profession by accusing us of making things up.

The best way to "cover my ass" in this environment is to request emailed interview responses, when I am interviewing someone who is connected to his administration.

I'll give you one example, something that happened recently. (I will not name the government agency for my own reasons.)

About a month ago, I did a story for a university publication and had to interview top researchers across the country on a particular issue. I included a top official at this government entity. And following my newly self-imposed "CYA Rule," I asked for the interview answers to be submitted via email. This person did, and I lifted the quotes directly from the email and plugged them into the appropriate and pertinent areas of the story.

This week, I approached the person's press representative for a second interview, this time for another magazine. It was on the same topic but for a wholly different audience.

The press person responded that when she fact checked the first story, she had to change several things before sending the story back to the editor. (We can discuss fact checking policies in another blog entry.) In a terse and condescending email, she demanded to see the final story before she agreed to the source's participation. The inference was that I had taken comments out of context or misrepresented the individual.

Not to be cowed, I fired back a response. Would she like to clarify what was miscommunicated, precisely? I explained that I had requested emailed responses and had not changed a word of the responses that were emailed. I further explained that I had the original email to cross compare to any "issues" that she saw in the story.

And I copied my editor.

The press person responded several hours later, that she would agree to the source's participation. She did not follow up to my questions about where I had misquoted or misinterpreted or miscommunicated the source in the first story.

Cover. Your. Ass.

I don't know if this person's attitude was in any way, shape or form affected by the current Presidential administration's stance on the free press in the United States of America. But I do know that years ago, my late father gave me advice in his Jean-Luc-Picard-no-nonsense-voice, and I listened.

And now I'm telling you.

Cover your ass in this climate. Keep copious notes. And if anyone challenges your reporting, refer back to those emailed answers and say, "Oh. I quoted this word for word, the email that YOU sent me. Where exactly is the issue?"

Chances are, they'll back down without another word on it.

As for my inclusion of this source in this next story? I'm skipping her. I have plenty of other sources to fill it out, and I don't need her. Her press representative is too much trouble, and frankly, I have more important things to do than worry about covering my ass again when the story comes out in two months.

I just can't be bothered.