Reporting without access is hard work, but the results can include better, more independent journalism.
By Joseph Williams
Pop quiz: What do Frank Sinatra’s pals, Tim Tebow’s football helmet, and social media have in common? And what do they have to do with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos?
Answer: They’re the tools and strategies intrepid journalists have used to pry open blockbuster stories – a legendary magazine profile of Sinatra, an award-winning investigation of corruption inside a private prison, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of President Donald Trump’s empty claim that he’s donated millions of dollars to charity — without having access to the people or places on whom or which they were reporting.
They’re also valuable examples for journalists who have been given the unenviable task of covering DeVos, a billionaire heiress-turned-public official who doesn’t grant many interviews or make herself available for reporters’ questions, and who leads a cabinet-level department with a $59 billion budget that has become infamous for its stonewalling and secrecy.
The bad news is that covering DeVos and the USDE is likely going to be harder than it was under Duncan or King, and may not get easier anytime soon.
The good news, however, is that there are lots of ways to cover DeVos without formally interviewing her or any top officials in the Education Department she runs. Some of them, in fact, might result in even better journalism than would have come from stories generated from official story pitches, press releases, and backroom deals reporters often feel they have to make.
Screen grabs from various DeVos stories and events in recent months
In five months as the nation’s education policy director, DeVos hasn’t held a press conference, has blown off an invitation to speak at the Education Writers Association convention in May, hasn’t discussed her agenda for the nation’s schools with the mainstream media, and avoids unscripted contact with reporters like the plague.
In just one of many examples, Matt Barnum, an education reporter for Chalkbeat, described on Twitter how he tried to get some questions answered from DeVos and her entourage when they visited Indiana for a convention of school-choice advocates and a drop-in at a parochial school for underserved students.
Barnum asked DeVos about her policies as she left the convention with her security detail. “We’re not taking questions,” she told him. The next day, during a school visit, Barnum tried again. DeVos and her entourage swept past him, and her press secretary brushed him off: “Not right now. We’re touring.”
Encounters like these have left ed-beat reporters scrambling to solve an important riddle: How to cover a controversial cabinet member who doesn’t do interviews, and a department that often doesn’t give timely information or answer questions?
That’s where Sinatra buddies, the football helmet, Twitter and Facebook come in.
In 1966, writer Gay Talese was assigned to write a profile of Frank Sinatra, then one of the country’s biggest entertainers and a show-biz legend; Just one tiny problem: Sinatra hated the press, and wouldn’t talk to Talese. Undaunted, Talese followed Sinatra for weeks on end, observing him from a close but respectful distance, interviewing members of The Chairman’s entourage, and talking to bartenders, musicians, and others Sinatra encountered. The resulting magazine profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” is still hailed by some as the best magazine celebrity profile ever written.
More recently, David Fahrenthold, a Washington Post reporter on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, picked up on a claim from then-candidate Donald Trump that he’d given millions of dollars to charity over the years. Lacking access to Trump, Fahrenthold worked backwards to verify Trump’s donations: He called the charities, and crowdsourced his reporting through Twitter, and worked the phones. Several months later, Fahrenthold had produced an extraordinary examination of Trump’s bogus charity donations and empty promises — and won a Pulitzer Prize for the work.
Nieman Lab story about Farenthold’s now-famous reporting methods.
There are lots of creative ways to get at a no-access Cabinet official – and some education reporters are using them.
FACEBOOK STALKING: One reporter contacted for this story says she’s a champion “Facebook stalker,” friending people in the know and parlaying those connections into information. Another said she’s a profligate user of Google and other internet search engines.
REAL-LIFE ENCOUNTERS: An ever bolder approach that some journalists might consider is to try approaching potential sources after business hours, walking to their cars, shopping, or dining at a bistro in their neighborhoods. DeVos, after all, works in the White House under Trump, whose administration is known for leaking, and is chock full of career bureaucrats who might be willing to share information to a trustworthy reporter.
Developing sources at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue rather than USDE headquarters, analysts say, might also pay dividends when covering DeVos and her policies.
SCRUTINIZING THE SCHEDULE: The Secretary’s public appearances can also be a useful tool. One education reporter, who spoke on the condition that she isn’t identified, suggested her colleagues keep a close eye on where DeVos goes, like Florida, where she’s already visited five times.
DEVELOPING STATE & LOCAL SOURCES: Reaching out to state and local officials DeVos interacts with is another solid strategy, says Peter Cunningham, former Education Department communications director under President Barack Obama. “I think you can get [insight into what DeVos is thinking] by going to the states that are interacting with [DeVos and her staff]…Even if the people in the department won’t talk, I think the states will,” he says.
Cunningham also recommends reporters keep trying the direct approach, perhaps even offering to take “gotcha” questions off the table in exchange for a getting-to-know-you interview. “I think the media is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt if she just started talking coherently and honestly about her issues,” he says.
CAREFUL LISTENING: It’s also worth listening carefully to things DeVos says in speeches. In her speeches on community college education, DeVos often quips that she can “personally” vouch for the quality of the culinary program at Grand Rapids, Mich., Community College. Thinking it an odd claim, one reporter did a few quick online searches and — bingo — found out that DeVos’s family once employed a private chef who’d graduated from GRCC, unearthing an anecdote that revealed more than the secretary might have herself in a one-on-one interview.
HOMETOWN HISTORY: Heading to DeVos’s home turf is another promising approach. The New York Times’ Erica Green has produced a series of stories about DeVos’s own education and some of the charter schools she’s been involved with, as well as breaking some news about the Secretary’s somewhat unusual staffing choices.
US News story about DeVos including tidbits reported from speeches.
The bottom line, says Nicco Mele, director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy: Getting shut out isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the result is that “journalists will be forced elsewhere.”
“You have to more digging to find other ways of telling the story if you can’t speak to the principals on the record,” says Mele. “I think that’s a good idea. There’s less access journalism” where reporters try to keep sources happy, “and more accountability journalism” in which getting the story is its own reward.
“You have to find another way to tell a compelling story because you couldn’t’ get access to the traditional kind of sources,” he says. “Finding another way to tell the story can lead to a better form of journalism. Sometimes constraint leads to performance.”
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