AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   August/September 2009

Donít Mention My Name   

Anonymous White House briefings have proven a stubborn foe for journalists trying to bring more transparency to government coverage.

By MacKenzie Cotters

It's a Washington staple, like lobbyists, humidity and the White House Easter egg hunt: the anonymous background briefing.

For decades, journalists have been frustrated by the bipartisan practice in which top government officials speak to reporters with the proviso that they can only be identified as "senior administration officials."

There were hopes that things might change during the presidency of Barack Obama, who promised to bring more transparency to the federal government. But the problem persists. A vivid symbol came in May, after Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two senior White House officials met with reporters to extol the virtues of the nominee; they said nothing sensitive or controversial. Yet, in true Beltway fashion, they couldn't be identified by name.

But Washington's bureau chiefs are fighting back. About 10 of them have banded together to pressure the administration to end the frustrating practice. "There has been a reasonably consistent effort by bureau chiefs of newspapers and wire services to encourage the White House to have briefings routinely on the record rather than on background," says USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page, a veteran in the battle against government anonymity.

The bureau chiefs have met several times with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to express their dissatisfaction with the briefings.

"We had a meeting in early June where we described why [the background briefing] creates problems for us and why it doesn't serve the White House's interest either to have briefings routinely on background," Page says. "And the White House has made some considerable efforts to put briefings on the record."

Page was pleased that most if not all of the briefings on Obama's trip to Russia, Italy and Ghana in July were on the record. "That was very encouraging, and I think journalists really appreciate the fact that the White House is willing to listen to our concerns and respond to them," she says.

Gibbs did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Success in the war against anonymity can be fleeting. In April 2005, a group of bureau chiefs, led by the AP's Sandy Johnson, persuaded the Bush administration to move away from the use of background briefings after a round of similar meetings with then-Press Secretary Scott

McClellan. But the administration shifted gears and reverted to the old ways in May 2006 after McClellan left.

"Both the AP and USA Today have adopted a policy of asking our reporters to protest at the beginning of background briefings, especially at the White House," Page says. "This didn't always make the briefings on the record, but it did put us on the record as saying we were concerned about the practice."

Why are administrations of all political flavors so fond of the background briefing? Susan Milligan, a Washington-based national political reporter for the Boston Globe, says it's a way to keep attention focused on the president rather than his underlings. "They don't want anyone being quoted in the papers except for the president," she says. "They want him to get all of the credit."

Rick Dunham, Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers, agrees. "They want the president to be speaking for the president," he says. "They want the president to be the voice, to be the spokesperson for the administration. And they have background briefings with senior administration officials..so they will not be taking away from his message."

Dunham says administrations hide behind anonymity because they can. "Government officials do it because they can get away with it," he says. "I can understand that. But, unfortunately, it works in favor of the White House and not the press."

USA Today Washington correspondent Kathy Kiely says anonymity allows officials to put out their message without taking responsibility for their words. "It's an easy way to avoid trouble when you don't have to watch your words as carefully," says Kiely, who has covered every presidential campaign since 1980. "It cloaks them in case something they say is unpopular or incorrect."

Dunham says the practice "really is weighted in the favor of government officials because there is not personal accountability, since their name is not attached to what they are saying. Reporters are taking all the risk by publishing the information, but the government does not take commensurate risk."

The background briefings are particularly irritating to journalists in a time of widespread public skepticism about the news media, especially about the use of unnamed sources. "In general your story is less credible if you don't name someone by name," Milligan says.

"There are some cases in which [background briefings] are just absurd, especially now when you have so many blogs and you have people who don't adhere to journalistic standards," she adds. "The way we separate ourselves as journalists is to improve our professionalism and name sources in stories."

Dunham cites another problem: The widespread citing of anonymous sources for routine information diminishes the value of the confidentiality granted to whistleblowers, people who risk their jobs and jail for what they may believe is a high cause.

USA Today is known for its strict policy when it comes to using unnamed sources. So does the paper use any material from the background briefings? Says Page, "Our guidelines are that we will attribute information on background only if the information is important to the story and there is a legitimate reason the person can't be named. And if there is not a real reason the person can't be named we won't use it. We think it affects our credibility to have people quoted on background."

Given all of the concern about confidential sources, why don't news organizations just boycott the briefings? One problem is that they are not operating in a vacuum. If one paper or network unilaterally ignores the briefings, it will miss stories that its competitors are running.

That's what derailed one high-profile boycott in the early 1970s. Fed up with a practice that allowed the Nixon administration to put out information without any accountability, then-Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee ordered his reporters to walk out the minute an official or spokesman announced that information could be used on background only. (See "When the Post Banned Anonymous Sources," August/September 2005.) As Ben H. Bagdikian wrote in AJR, here's what happened next: "The Post's competitors, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, published important news stories that the Post did not have. The paper's readers were deprived of significant information. For a fierce competitor like Bradlee, that was intolerable.

"The experiment ended after two days."

As the episode suggests, anonymity in Washington is a stubborn foe.

"I give Gibbs credit because he was skeptical at first but listened to what we had to say. That's all you can ask," Page says. "It's not one of those things you do once and then you're done. It's a constant process of trying to encourage there to be less of this background culture in town."

MacKenzie Cotters

Cotters (mcotters@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.