Darren Weeks

JOURNALISTIC ETHICS: State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf Gifts Reporter Matt Lee During Press Briefing

Darren Weeks
Coalition to Govern America
September 18, 2014


I might be accused of being a little trivial here, while others will justify the action as a "nice gesture", but I couldn't help but grapple with a very uneasy and somewhat sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach as I watched the opening of the State Department daily press briefing from September 9th.

Deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf opened the news conference by bringing veteran Associated Press journalist Matt Lee balloons for his birthday.

I can almost hear some people saying, all right, Weeks, you've got too much free time on your hands, or otherwise responding that I'm making a big deal out of something that is nothing. I suppose one could construe this incident to be an infraction on a relatively minor scale, given the massive conflicts-of-interest and blatant corruption that grab and often don't grab headlines today.

Aside from getting the feeling that the important job of briefing reporters, and therefore the public, on important affairs of our nation has been given over to children, I believe it is well worth pointing out the ethical breaches of the incident.

This is a case of a government official attempting to "butter up" members of the press corp by gifting them for their birthday, regardless of how large or small the largess. As I watched this incident play out, I couldn't help but wonder if she'd sent an intern out to buy the balloons, or had she went shopping herself? Does she have a "thing" for this reporter?

We don't really have to guess as to the question of her intent. She speaks to that quite clearly, implying that he might throw her more softball questions as a result of her gesture when she says, "...and he has to have them the whole time he asks questions".

Visably embarrassed by the incident, and being a gentleman, Lee accepts the gift with thanks. Admittedly, being thrust into such an awkward situation, it would have been very difficult for him to do otherwise. But the proper thing to do, ethically, would have been to say, thank you for the kind gesture, but I cannot accept this.

In an age of government-press correspondance dinners, which encourage reporters to drink and party with the very people about whom they write, the lines often become blurred between professional and personal relationships. This writer would argue that that is the intent of such events. But drawing a clear line between personal and professional relationships is of utmost importance when it comes to an indepedent press. Perhaps this incident serves as yet another example, albeit a small one, as to why the United States no longer has one.

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