I've got a plan to bust the background briefing racket. Of the many ways that modern journalists cede power to authority, none is easier to fix than the notion that government officials are allowed to gather several reporters in a room or on a conference call, spew their clever lines of lies and spin, and declare it all "on background"—shielded from accountability "on condition of anonymity."
Reporters are increasingly allowing public relations teams to set the terms for coverage of politics, business, sports, and even entertainment. It's a troubling trend for an industry in flux. But the media in Washington are the most unnecessarily and dangerously cowed.
When reporters call the shots, anonymous sources are vital to uncovering government secrets and wrongdoing (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used Mark Felt and other whistleblowers to chase Richard Nixon out of office). When government officials call the shots, there is no incentive to tell the truth, no punishment for deception, and the journalism itself is diminished by canned news.
In rare cases, approved in advance by journalists, an anonymous source talking to a bunch of reporters might serve a public service. For instance, security details for a presidential trip to a war zone may need to be shared privately with the traveling media corps. Most editors would consider that a good case for a briefing that shields the identity of the government officials and embargoes news of the trip itself.
But in recent years, public relations officials have been allowed to assume that they get to decide the terms for briefing reporters, and what once was a rare occasion is now a daily disservice to the public. Just last week, the Obama administration sought to to build public support for extending post-911 domestic spying programs it lied about until Edward Snowden blew the whistle.
The New York Times reported:
"What you're doing, essentially, is you're playing national security Russian roulette," one senior administration official said of allowing the powers to lapse. That prospect appears increasingly likely with the measure, the USA Freedom Act, stalled and lawmakers in their home states and districts during a congressional recess.
"We're in uncharted waters," another senior member of the administration said at a briefing organized by the White House, where three officials spoke with reporters about the consequences of inaction by Congress. "We have not had to confront addressing the terrorist threat without these authorities, and it's going to be fraught with unnecessary risk."
Now ask yourself: If these scare tactics are legitimate, why wouldn't administration officials allow their names to be public? (Josh Earnest had the chance today, and wouldn't.) When they refused, why would the Times and several other news organizations publish the quotes?
The standard rule for using anonymous sources, published in Associated Press stylebooks used in almost every newsroom, is: "Whenever possible, we pursue information on the record. When the source insists on background or off-the-record ground rules, we must adhere to a strict set of guidelines."
First, the material is information "and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report." Second, the information is not available on the record. Third, the source is reliable.
The White House briefing was a total rule-breaker: 1) The material was opinion and speculation; 2) There is no shortage of on-the-record hyperbole about the National Security Agency program; 3) The Obama administration, like the Bush White House, routinely deceives the public about NSA's activities.
These are not credible sources.
Just last week, reporters wrote and broadcast material from a background briefing conducted by Hillary Clinton advisers who insisted they not be identified. This from Politico:
At Clinton campaign headquarters, meanwhile, senior campaign officials told reporters Thursday at a background briefing that Hillary Clinton has not been damaged or distracted by the revelations about her family's foundation.
Again: If that paragraph is true (it's not), why wouldn't the Clinton advisers put their names behind it? Why did the media report anonymous, inaccurate spin? Google the Bush White House. Watch how the GOP presidential campaigns deal with the media. The background briefing is a bipartisan racket. So why do journalists let their sources get away with it?
Fear: Reporters and editors don't want to get beat by competitors who bow to the terms of a public relations team. They don't stop to realize very little news comes from these briefings, and none of it is worth ceding precious leverage to the government.
Habit: It's a lazy way out. I know, because it's a route I've taken. As a reporter and editor, I've also taken part in countless (and useless) protests against background briefings.
Vanity: There actually are some reporters who prefer anonymous sources over named ones, because they believe "on condition of anonymity" creates the perception that they're plugged into their beats. They're fooling themselves and, worse, their audiences.
Access: Reporters are increasingly kept apart from the people they cover. They don't recognize that the way to get access is by raising hell—by making yourself such a source of surprise and disruption that the people you cover realize they need to get to know you.
Jonathan Allen of Vox, one of the better reporters on the beat, explained why he accepted the Clinton ground rules last week. "These officials are people who could easily avoid interacting with reporters for the entire campaign if they chose," he wrote. "Given the option of talking to them or not, major news organizations chose the former."
I get it. I used to think that way. But I've learned over the years that I don't need to talk to campaign people. They need to talk to me. Freeze me out? Fine—that's just more time to talk to rival campaigns, political scientists, and the best sources on any campaign: voters.
Even the dimmest public relations officials eventually learn that they can't put a good reporter on ice and, even if they could, they would be freezing themselves out of the reporter's stories.
Second, why would I let the Clinton campaign—or any entity I cover—give me "the option" to choose? On this and so many other ways the media has ceded power, I say flip the script. Make them choose. Put them on the sorry end of a devil's choice.
Which gets me to my plan to bust the briefing racket.
If you're a reporter who gets sucked into a "background briefing," don't let anonymous spin creep into your stories. Ignore it (National Journal attended the Clinton briefing but didn't write it up). Or call it out, as John Harwood did here: "How's Hillary Doing? Wish We Could Tell You"
Wish I could tell you more. But they said very little.
Notice that I typed very little and not "very little," because under the ground rules of Thursday's briefing reporters were not allowed to quote their words directly.
You're not missing much.
For all its understated brilliance, Harwood's column won't put a dent in the background briefing racket. It was, after all, a retroactive hit directed at just one PR team on behalf of just one reporter.
The media should be more proactive, like Adam Nagourney of The New York Times, who tweeted today the details of Clinton's presidential announcement event and directly attributed them to spokesman Jesse Ferguson. The aide had emailed the information to reporters, presuming that he could deem the material "on background."
Per Clinton campaign memo: background is negotiated btwn campaign & reporter. And that Jesse stuff doesn't rise to level of needing bckgrnd— adam nagourney (@adamnagourney) June 1, 2015
If you're a reporter, go to your email now and write to the director of communications for whatever beat you cover "“ a campaign, an agency, a business, a sports team, whatever.
"Dear ___," your note starts.
"I just wanted to remind you of a long tradition in journalism: Everything a reporter sees and hears is on the record and attributable directly to the source unless the reporter and source mutually agree in advance to other terms."
"That means, of course, that every briefing I attend, in person or on conference call, will be on the record unless you get my permission in advance. (Knowing my editor's commitment to transparency and accountability, I suspect permission will only be granted in extreme cases.)"
Congratulations. You just forced the PR types to choose: Do we want a briefing bad enough to play by this person's rules? The answer will almost always be yes, and when it's not, you won't miss much. Hell, you're a good enough reporter to find out what's said at briefings you don't attend.
You might want to add to your note:
"Same applies to every email you send me. Writing "OFF THE RECORD" at the top doesn't make it so.
"I'm always open to using anonymous sources, but only when we're dealing with important information (not spin) and when my editor and I determine it's in the best interest of our audience."
If you're an editor, consider giving your reporters cover (these are your rules, after all). Email the communications director at every beat your newsroom covers, and tell them:
"If the briefing material is important and true, there's no good reason to hide the source's identity. Unless you get prior permission from one of my reporters, all briefings are on the record. Same for your emails.
Remind them who's in charge.