“Can I give you a call?”
It’s the worst possible reply to an email, but one I receive all too often in the course of reporting. Phone calls are journalistically indispensable when you want to conduct an extended interview, but for a routine query or point of clarification, email is much, much better.
Besides which, like any self-respecting person born in the 1980s, I hate phone calls.
The issue is that administration officials and other executive branch aides don’t want to leave a record of the conversation that might come to light one day. Not necessarily because they have anything scandalous to say. After all, we live in a world where something as banal as Doug Band, a top Clinton Foundation aide, asking Huma Abedin, a top State Department aide, for a special diplomatic passport for a hostage rescue trip to North Korea and being told he can’t have one can be spun as a scandal by a determined team of reporters and editors.
If Band had made a phone call instead of sending an email, Hillary Clinton would have been spared the bad — and totally unjustifiably so — news cycle she suffered last week. Which is why prudent staffers want to do basically everything, no matter how innocent, over the phone.
The issue is that while common sense sees email and phone calls as close substitutes, federal transparency law views them very differently. The relevant laws were written decades ago, in an era when the dichotomy between written words (memos and letters) and spoken words (phone calls and meetings) was much starker than it is today. And because they are written down, emails are treated like formal memos rather than like informal conversations. They are archived, and if journalists or ideologically motivated activists want to get their hands on them, they can.
It’s impossible to write about this issue in today’s environment without thinking of Clinton’s use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state. But while the question of whether she appropriately followed the existing laws is obviously important, so is the question of whether the laws make sense. And the answer is: no. Treating email as public by default rather than private like phone calls does not serve the public interest. Rather than public servants communicating with the best tool available for communication purposes, they’re communicating with an arbitrary legal distinction in mind.