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EXCLUSIVE! How a campaign's pitch left me with the unspoken hint of a Quid Pro Quo
I was shoving my MacBook Air into my messenger bag on a Friday evening ten days before the 2020 Iowa caucuses, when I received a text from Erin McPike, a press aide to Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire presidential candidate who was attempting a late dash at the Democratic nomination. McPike, an affable professional acquaintance of mine for nearly a decade who had toggled between stints in journalism and public relations (and is now doing communications for Meta), was offering something guaranteed to stop any worthy reporter in their tracks -- even if that reporter had an evening of cocktails and curated Spotify playlists on his brain -- An Exclusive.
Exclusives remain the most envied get in journalism. Being able to authoritatively report new, significant information on a topic of interest before your peers is ultimately what separates the stenographers from the stars. Securing an exclusive means you, the reader, must come to me — and me alone — for the development d’jour. No one else has it — at least for the moment. Let’s be honest, exclusives also make the reporter feel, well, exclusive. “Of all of your choices, you’re calling me with the goods!?” The more momentous the news is, the faster and harder the competition breathlessly scurries to chase and confirm it. The exclusive earns you coveted cache with colleagues, competitors, cable news bookers and most importantly, your employer, who will likely place an “exclusive” banner on or inside of this prized content, like a glossy cherry red bow on Christmas morning. Publishing this privileged piece is akin to experiencing the deep drop on a roller coaster ride or sending a risque text to a lust interest. It’s mere placement on the internet can push a rush of dopamine through your veins. It’s thrilling — a bit frightening (This better be right!) — but ultimately validating. In journalism, the feeling is unmatched.
“Have a minute?,” McPike asked, as I began unpacking my laptop and slid back into my desk seat inside my office in downtown Washington. “I have an exclusive for you Sunday morning.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” I replied, immediately intrigued. “What’s up?”
All exclusives aren’t equal, of course. The majority that are dangled to reporters on a daily basis are small ball pitches -- a “first look” at a candidate’s web video, a top line of an internal poll, a frivolous piece of opposition research. We’re not exactly talking about the allegations against Harvey Weinstein or the unearthing of the Pentagon Papers here. Yet, in the oversaturated and hyper-competitive market of political journalism, even minor exclusives, often tellingly labeled “scooplets,” can demonstrate the stature of a reporter, the depth of his or her network and fill a publication’s never-ending content hole. Still, many aren’t worth the trouble, and as I’ve gotten older, more experienced and commanded greater control over what I write in this business, I more often than not pass on these dime-a-dozen pitches. (When I passed on certain pitches at The Politico I got reamed out for it by higher ups, especially if they ended up in the archrival WaPo.) Have no fear, these pitches nearly always land elsewhere! The Hill, for instance, has a reputation for taking, well, almost anything.
On this night, McPike was purveying a preview of a speech candidate Bloomberg was to give on Sunday morning in South Florida to a Jewish group. I had been in regular contact with McPike since she joined the Bloomberg campaign, and after settling into a comfortable reporter-source back-and-forth relationship via text, I decided to make a special request weeks prior: How about an interview with the candidate himself, sometime after the first primaries had concluded, those of which he wasn’t competing in. My idea was to get Bloomberg on the record first, reacting to the outcomes in Iowa and New Hampshire, providing an opportunity for him to make news in assessing the field. A piece that no one else would have. While the rest of the reporting pack would be chasing the top finishers and losers on the cusp of dropping out, I’d have dibs on the contender about to crash the entire party with his zillions in cash. To zig while others are zagging is a key component in any savvy journalist’s success. It’d be new and ... exclusive.
McPike had shown initial interest in my pitch and would shoot me regular updates via text. She was working on it, she promised. But in the meantime, this particular offering was more beneficial to her understandable near-term interests, teeing up Bloomberg’s comments to an important constituency in the country’s largest perennial swing state in which my company (McClatchy) owns a newspaper (The Miami-Herald). McPike was seeking maximum media interest before, during and after the event at a time when the overwhelming media focus was on the candidates already competing, not still waiting behind the gate. She was trying to bust through that gate. She was doing her job.
I naturally reverted to doing mine, which was rooted in a posture of skepticism. Here’s another truth in journalism: Storylines are never as tidy and straightforward as they seem at first sight. The catch, the hiccup, the other side: these are the ingredients in the grey matter that sap the hue out of solid black and white pitches. There’s always more to chisel through. But flacks — the shorthand description for spokespeople, political communicators, or COMMS — exist to present their side as ironclad and bulletproof. Their incentive is to rush you into it, like an eager co-worker pushing you to take a first date with their long-single friend or your college roommate goading you to into guzzling that shot immediately. You need more time; they know the longer you take, the less likely it is to happen. They start to ponder other outlet options. When rushed pitches get placed, there’s often a mistake. You think of ways to make their urgency abate.
I peppered McPike with my reluctance. It would have to be something really newsy for us to go with. My editor at the time set a high bar for a single political speech’s relevance. Candidates speechified every damn day. Why did THIS one merit special attention? Also, we’d need ample lead time before the masses got it -- not just the 10-minute head start that flacks often brandish as reporter bait. You can have it first, they say. Which often means two to five minutes before everyone else does. How generous! An exclusive that expires quicker than my average shower.
Listening to all of this, with a hint of frustration building in her voice, McPike suddenly deployed a soft but intentionally effective pressure point: “You’re asking for an interview and you’re turning down a story on the speech?”
And there it was.
I remember her saying this with the sound of a smirk. It wasn’t a threat; it was a playful, gentle nudge.
It wasn’t stated outright, but the implication was clear. If I wanted a shot at my prized exclusive interview in a couple weeks, I might want to play ball and swallow this pitch. An unspoken quid pro quo? Nah, not quite. Just a heavy hint.
McPike didn’t belabor the point, nor did she return to it in our conversation. But she really didn’t have to. Message received. I asked McPike to see the speech and take some time to review it for newsworthiness. She emailed it over -- bold embargo markings plastered on the text -- and I took about an hour to mull. But suddenly an additional factor was at play hanging over my head like a menacing cloud.
Was the speech write-up worth improving my odds to land the interview? Would I even be considering previewing this ho-hum speech if the interview wasn’t on the table? Was my bar for newsworthiness suddenly lower? Would writing on the speech for a shot at the interview really raise a significant issue of journalism ethics? Would it be misleading to readers? Couldn’t I just write it off as source greasing? Or would I be consenting to an unspoken quid pro quo?
Honestly, how would anyone know anyway?
That one was easy: They wouldn’t.
After scanning the speech, I noticed a few potential newsy bits in the otherwise boilerplate remarks. Bloomberg was going to target Bernie Sanders, the only other Jewish candidate competing for the nomination.
This planned Bloomberg line stood out as the headline-grabber:
“Now, I know I’m not the only Jewish candidate running for president. But I am the only one who doesn’t want to turn America into a kibbutz.”
Not being Jewish, I had to Google kibbutz as I went over the rest of the speech. A communal settlement in Israel. I assumed this was a putdown.
Approaching 8 p.m. on this Friday, I emailed my editor with my thoughts and requesting his.
I noted the above quote and also expressed the notion that Bloomberg was trying to undercut President Trump’s play for the Jewish vote. That could be another potential hook. Would we be interested in a write-up on this, I asked?
My editor was interested but wanted to know how much lead time we’d have with it alone, exclusively. I texted Erin:
Dave: ok my editor is looking for some lead time for us to promote it a bit
Erin: so embargo lifts for everyone pre-writing at 4:30.
It’s not exclusive.
I tried though…
Dave: oh I thought you said exclusive?
Erin: Shit, you’re right I did say that in my first text - and that was before I sat in a meeting and understood the deal.
I’ve been on the road the last three days.
So I’m sorry that was misleading!
A subdued sigh of exasperation and an inclination to reach towards my bar cart. That’s how I felt.
Yet this exchange essentially made my decision for me. We weren’t interested in the remarks if a bunch of other outlets were getting a small window of exclusivity on them too. This is also how many news operations work. If others have it too, fuck ‘em. We don’t want it.
Is this the best way to serve readers? Probably not. But it’s a strategy to play hardball with flacks, demanding they serve us with scoops and signaling we’re not easy dates. It’s another unspoken secret of how newsrooms operate.
I didn’t write the preview.
While I was annoyed, I wasn’t angry at McPike. Bloomberg’s operation was known to be so big and, at moments, unwieldy, that often its right hand didn’t know what its left hand was up to. It’s the hiccup when you have an embarrassment of riches: Too many well-meaning staff pitching too many reporters the same things at the same time, everyone seeking to maximize their personal value.
After another week passed, I reengaged McPike on the interview with the former mayor. She let me know she was still working on it, figuring out details. We went back and forth on the time and place. A state that he would be competitive in come Super Tuesday. California? North Carolina? Tennessee? Where could I fly in to meet Mike?
More texts, a flurry of vague options, but no commitment.
The interview never happened either.
I don’t blame McPike. It was worth the repetitive shots.
But I do think about this incident in the larger frame of journalism quandaries and ethics. Is publishing a story pitched by a campaign I’d otherwise likely ignore ACCEPTABLE … if it improved my chances of securing a larger story about that campaign later?
“The main trick in political journalism is learning how to translate — to make sense of the partisan bullshit that even your friends will lay on you — without crippling your access to the kind of information that allows you to keep functioning.”
The foundation of that missive, courtesy of Hunter S. Thompson in 1973, is still profound today.
In industry terms, the trade-off is called source-greasing. It happens frequently, permitted by editors and embraced by many reporters as part of the process.
So, say I write up Bloomberg’s speech. It serves an immediate dual purpose: Informing readers about his comments on a rival candidate, but also pleasing a campaign looking for its message to be distributed widely in a key market. Seems fine.
And it just happens to serve a longer-term goal: Working with a flack on their pitch greases the gears for them to want to help you with your own. Playing nice. Playing ball.
You aren’t feeding inaccuracies, you aren’t even promising them anything. It’s just massaging a working relationship. This happens all the time. What do you think is the point of Politico Playbook’s daily birthday listings? It just a perpetual rub of sources’ bellies.
It’s fine, right? Nobody gets hurt.
Or is a roaming editorial standard to play for a future favor inherently unethical, in that it leads you to write things you normally wouldn’t write?
During my tenure at Politico now a decade ago, an editor more than once advised me on borderline pitches, “If you think it helps you with campaign long-term, write it up.”
The problem is that taking the pitch always puts you in a better place with the campaign. Writing up everything has become the new standard for many publications and young, ambitious reporters trying to meet traffic goals and stand out in the overpopulated political news silo.
The dilemma is whether that leads you down the road to compromises of crummy, drive-by journalism.
Honestly, I don’t think it would have in this Bloomberg case. But I wonder if it might in another.