“He is an important character in the very story he is telling.”

November 3rd, 2015

At Just Security, Oona Hathaway reviews Charlie Savage’s new book, Power Wars. (My take on the book is here). One of her primary critiques is that Savage is not just a story-teller, but part of the story:

Yet what struck me first in reading the book is not so much the story Savage tells, much of which was familiar (thanks in no small part to his reporting), but the way in which Charlie Savage is no mere observer of events. He is an important character in the very story he is telling.

Many of the events Savage recounts in his book betray his influence. Savage’s prominent role was inaugurated with his clever executive power survey for presidential candidates, which he conducted when he was a reporter for the Boston Globe.

But this was just the first of many cases in which Savage shaped the events he describes. Savage has been a frequent, active, and often effective critic of the effort to keep many government documents secret. His employer, the New York Times, has filed several Freedom of Information Act suits on Savage’s and other reporters’ behalf to try to obtain information on its legal reasoning on various matters, including recess appointments (page 447) and the al-Aulaqi memos (pages 439, 452-53). Though not altogether successful, the suits put pressure on the administration to disclose more about its legal justifications and helped eventually lead to the disclosure of many previously closely held documents.

Savage was also able to bring attention to issues that had been put on the back burner. For example, his story about hunger strikes at Guantánamo appears to have helped push Obama to re-focus on closing the prison (pages 504-05). Savage has also served as the conduit for not-too-subtle jabs and jousts between members of the administration.

Savage’s role (or potential role) in high stakes internal debates may also have led to occasional defensive behavior, such as meetings being limited to a smaller group to reduce chances of a leak.

I think this critique is somewhat unfair, and by no means limited to Savage.

Consider Adam Liptak, the lead Supreme Court reporter of the New York Times. On the one hand, Adam is a journalist–and an excellent one at that. His reporting for the Times is exemplary. But, Adam also writes several columns criticizing different aspects of the Court. For example, Adam has written about SCOTUS modifying opinions without any notification and link rot in Supreme Court opinions (based on two Harvard Law Review articles). To my pleasant surprise, on the first day of the October 2015 term, SCOTUS announced changes that address both of these concerns. So would Adam be the story-teller, or part of the story? I don’t mean to pick on Adam at all, but it is fairly common, and perhaps even expected, that journalists at institutions like the New York Times get results from their writing. Savage may have been more active than others, by launching FOIA suits and publishing leaked comments, but I don’t think his reporting is beyond the realm of active Times journalists.

Hathaway raises another critique that is fair for all off-the-record sourcing:

But the downsides of such heavy reliance on a reporter for a glimpse into our government’s inner workings are obvious: Savage must get his information from sources, and those sources often have an agenda or a limited view of the issue at hand. (They are also, it bears mentioning again, often breaking their legal and ethical obligations not to disclose classified or confidential information.) That means that the glimpse he is offered is necessarily a skewed one. Add to this the fact that those who talk to Savage are, it seems, largely those at or near the top of the totem pole. Officials who labor day-in-and-day-out on the issues Savage covers — and who have an immensely important role in shaping options and strategies — receive almost no mention. It’s hard to fault Savage for this — he can’t possibly speak to everyone, and he clearly spoke to a huge number of insiders. But it does mean that he has a partial view of how the lawyering process works that doesn’t necessarily reflect the gritty day-to-day reality inside the agencies, where options and rationales are developed by lawyers, many of whom have been at the job for decades.

When writing Unprecedented, in a few places I quoted government attorneys who could not speak on the record. Additionally, I spoke with many private-sector lawyers, who requested to speak off the record. In all cases, when someone told me something, it invariably was designed to make him or her look good, and potentially make someone else look bad. I was entirely cognizant of how different people tried to spin me, and get me to write stuff they wanted. It is really, really hard to try to figure out what is true and what is bluster–especially in D.C. I hope I succeeded, but in truth, in light of the unnamed sources, it is impossible to know for sure, even if you get things confirmed by two people.