I’ve spent far more evenings serving chicken fingers in Bethesda than sipping chardonnay in Georgetown, but I would argue that developing relationships of trust and confidence with sources ends up benefiting readers, not harming them. Off-the-record conversations offer insights that ambush interviews deny. You get a sense of the complexities of governmental decision-making. You get a glimpse of an officeholder’s intellect and mindset. You learn who to trust, and who to avoid.
We journalists could, in theory, live like the Washington version of Bubble Boy, quarantined from casual contact with the people we cover, insisting that our children go to separate, journalist-only schools. Or we could live in a Leibovich world, with every party — indeed, every funeral; his book opens with Tim Russert’s invitation-only send-off — an on-the-record event. In the end, our understanding, and consequently our readers’ understanding, of — sorry — this town would be the worse off for it.
Another, admittedly more problematic form of coziness involves the revolving door between government and the private sector. Obama famously banned lobbyists from his administration, except when he allowed them, but guess what? Obama could have benefited from more lobbyists — that is to say, more expertise about how Washington works — not fewer…
But he is too unsparing, too cynical, in his assessment of motivation. Certainly, some people go into government calculating the subsequent payout. But more people, at least more of the people that I cover, go into government because that is where they truly want to spend their time and talent; the private sector pays tuition bills.