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May
15

Why I don’t tell reporters everything I know: Cass Sunstein

Editor’s Note: Professor Sunstein’s discussion of discretion below should read and asborbed by both reporters and officials.

From: The Oregonian 

By Cass R. Sunstein

The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which I attended last Saturday night, is an astonishing spectacle — a unique combination of journalists, government officials and celebrities. Amid the laughter and the conviviality, however, there is an uneasy undercurrent: Many journalists are disturbed that outside of an annual dinner, they cannot get a lot of access to those same officials.

Everyone should agree that in reporting on the workings of government, journalists are engaging in indispensable work. Because their job is to inform the public — and hold officials accountable — it’s more than understandable if they object when their questions are met with silence, bureaucratic abstractions or unresponsive talking points. The Constitution itself recognizes not merely “the freedom of speech,” but also and separately the freedom “of the press.”

But when they are able to pose questions, what do Washington journalists want to know?

Here is a guide to four common requests, based in large part on my experience in government, that can make public officials reluctant to engage with reporters or provide helpful answers to them. (I do not deal here with the Freedom of Information Act and related transparency questions, which are obviously important but would require a separate discussion.)

1. “Please disclose an important policy decision before it is finalized or announced.”

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