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MEMBERS ONLY: The Best Stakeout Ever

Banter White House Correspondent Tommy Christopher reads our members in on his White House meetings, and cracks open the vault to bring you a rare look at the best White House stakeout ever.
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It's Monday, dear Bantering friends, which means it is time for another look behind the scenes at the White House. Since there wasn't much new or interesting that happened on camera last week I don't have a film for you, but I do have a special treat for you from the vault: a rare look at a complete White House stakeout, and one which was more interesting than most.

Although nothing much happened on camera, there was plenty happening behind the scenes last week. My trip was short, just a one-day turnaround last Monday because there was no briefing on Tuesday. I considered sticking around to film the President's departure on Marine One, but the lure of sleep and home proved too strong.

Josh Earnest didn't call on me at Monday's Iran "47 Traitors" letter-dominated daily briefing, but briefings aren't the only source of news. My meetings with White House officials and other sources, even off-the-record ones, helps to inform my other reporting and commentary, sometimes even months or years later. On Monday, a situation developed that provides a useful object lesson in reporting practices.

For reasons which will become clear, I can't get into all of the details, but in meetings with White House officials on Monday, across the span of several hours, two different sources told me something, the same thing, while we were still on the record, and then told me after the fact that I couldn't use it. This presented an interesting dilemma, because in point of fact, both in the letter and spirit of journalistic ethics, I most definitely could use it. Nothing is off the record unless source and reporter both agree it is off the record. Therefore, once these sources said they didn't want the information used, the decision whether to do so rested entirely with me.

The fact that you can use something, though, doesn't mean that you should. There are also questions of newsworthiness, and of protecting relationships with sources, and the balance between those considerations. What they told me would have been news in the sense that it would have made for a great headline that would have gotten lots of clicks, but substantively, it was nothing that wasn't already obvious. Just because something would be a huge story doesn't mean it should be.

On the other hand, even with journalistic ethics on my side, my sources would have felt as though I'd burned them just to get a cheap story, which could affect my ability to gain valuable reporting in the future. If sources stop trusting you, that malady is contagious.

If the story is truly newsworthy, though, then such considerations are moot, and if I had considered that to be the case here, I would have explained that to both of my sources and hoped for the best. It is important to operate in good faith with your sources, even if they're sources you don't think you'll ever need again. It's the right thing to do, and trust is also contagious.

In the end, I decided not to use information in question, more because of the former reason than the latter, but the episode illustrates one of the key functions of journalism that has been eroded in the modern media landscape.

In the click-dependent, microscopic news cycle, our most influential news outlets have ceded judgments about newsworthiness to the people who click and share the most. I guarantee you, no other reporter would have thought twice about publishing that information, and any other editor would probably have my ass in a sling for not doing so. One of the great things about this site is the trust that the editors place in my judgment in these matters.

One of the aspects of White House reporting that I've tried to bring you all in on is the stakeout, one of the lesser-appreciated events that happen regularly on the beat. The general public has probably never seen an entire stakeout, because they're usually fodder for a quick pull-quote, or even relegated to b-roll accompanying a reporting package. A stakeout is when legislators or activists or other visitors to the White House follow up on a meeting with the President by speaking to the press, usually just outside the West Wing, and usually taking a few questions.

You don't normally get a lot of news out of stakeouts, and they're kind of a pain in the ass because you never know when there will be one. They're not on the schedule, they frequently conflict with other events that are going on at the White House, and just like real stakeouts, they can involve a lot of waiting.

There was one stakeout, however, that was particularly memorable, following a meeting between the President and British Petroleum executives Carl-Henric Svanberg (Chairman, BP), Tony Hayward (CEO, BP), Bob Dudley (Managing Director, BP), Lamar McKay (CEO, BP America), and Rupert Bondy (General Counsel, BP). This was following a meeting at which the President secured a $20 billion commitment from BP to handle claims from the then-still-raging oil spill.

Just to set the table for you a little bit, one of the aspects of the federal response to the spill that I had keyed in on was what, if any, consequences BP faced if they did not cooperate with the response being led by Admiral Thad Allen. A few weeks prior to this stakeout, I asked Adm. Allen about that during a White House daily briefing that he attended:

I never did get those cites, so the question was still an open one on June 16, 2010, when the BP execs faced reporters after their meeting with the President. Meanwhile, CEO Tony Hayward was a ripe target for ire after having said that he wanted his "life back," and after receiving an unwarranted apology from Republican Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX).

That was the landscape on June 16 when the BP meeting occurred. The President was scheduled to meet with them in the Roosevelt Room at 10:15 am, for 20 minutes, at most. At 10:35, when the President's next event was scheduled, we all set up outside the West Wing to wait for the execs to appear. As is almost always the case with such stakeouts, you end up filming anyone who comes out of the West Wing so you don't miss the subjects' entrance, and this one was no exception. What was different was that we were waiting for over four hours as the meeting dragged on, even through an entire press briefing. As we waited, I also shot some video of a tree being cut down on the North Lawn, which I thought might make a nice metaphor for the proceedings in the Roosevelt room. to give you a tiny sense of what that all was like, here's that footage, which you must imagine is stretched out over four hot, sunny hours:

We had about an hour's reprieve for the briefing, but for the rest of that time, about 100 or more reporters and cameramen were stuck waiting for these guys out in the hot sun, talking about what was going on in there, and getting pretty pissed off. Despite all the post-meeting happy talk, it was obvious to everyone that these guys were in there trying to worm their way out of as much trouble as they possibly could, and that the President was going to have to deliver big.

When they finally did come out, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg spoke for a few minutes with the other execs behind him, then took three questions, and bounced. As they all tried to flee, they were surrounded by reporters asking them questions. I made a beeline for Hayward, and stuck my camera right in his face to see if he could answer the question I had asked Adm. Cochran.

Since there were so many reporters, the only way I could get a shot was to essentially shoot the entire stakeout at Svanberg's feet, so not only will you probably never see another whole entire stakeout, you will definitely never see one this close up. If you don't want to watch the whole thing, skip ahead to just before the 5-minute mark, where Svanberg talks about caring for the "small people," and stay with it to the end, and a last-minute zinger from Jake Tapper:

The whole day was big news, but the stakeout itself was as dramatic as any I've ever seen, and really captured the sentiment of the country at that time. One of my favorite pictures ever was this one, which accompanied news stories about the $20 billion deal over the next several days:

06-16-2010 Tony Hayward

That's my camera sticking right in Hayward's face, the perfect illustration of what he had to deal with that day, and how he dealt with it. Hayward would go on to resign shortly thereafter, but only after further testing the public's patience with his penchant for self-pity.

Even though there wasn't enough video from last week for a film, I will leave you with a photo that will make glad the heart of any Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans among you (which I assume is all of you). On Monday, I noticed that there is an actual Cambot in the White House briefing room: