D.C. Bureau Chiefs Launch Push to End On-Background Briefings

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By: Joe Strupp

Washington bureau chiefs have launched a new effort to stop off-the-record and background-only White House press briefings with a campaign aimed at getting fellow D.C. journalists to demand that more briefings be on the record.

Among other efforts, they pressed the demand with White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on Friday. “We tried to make the point that readers are sick to death of unnamed sources,” said Ron Hutcheson, a White House correspondent for Knight Ridder. “Scott listened and he said he would chew on it for a few weeks, but everybody felt like he would give it consideration.”

McClellan could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday morning.

In an e-mail to several dozen bureau chiefs Monday, a group of top D.C. bureau bosses urged their colleagues to push more for on-the-record briefings when government officials deem them to be on background only.

“We’d like to make a more concerted effort among the media during the month of May to raise objections as soon as background briefings are scheduled by any government official, whether at the White House, other executive agencies or the Hill,” the e-mail said, in part. “Please ask your reporters to raise objections beforehand in hopes of convincing the official to go public — ask them to explain why the briefing has to be on background. If that doesn’t work, object again at the top of the briefing — at least those objections will be part of the transcript. The broadcast networks will also press for briefings to be open to camera and sound.”

The e-mail went to more than 40 D.C. bureau chiefs. Those who signed the e-mail were: Susan Page of USA Today, Clark Hoyt of Knight Ridder, Andy Alexander of Cox Newspapers, Robin Sproul of ABC News, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, Philip Taubman of The New York Times, and Sandy Johnson of Associated Press.

The e-mail followed the 45-minute meeting last Friday between the same bureau chiefs, White House Correspondents Association President Hutcheson and Press Secretary McClellan. Only Sproul did not attend. Those in attendance said they asked McClellan to end the background-only briefings, citing a need to have more openness in their reporting.

The bureau chiefs said the background briefings often occur once or twice a week at the White House, sometimes via conference calls. In most cases, they are done to give reporters a leg up before a major speech, presidential trip, or specific legislation being introduced or debated in Congress.

“It depends if there is a lot going on,” said USA Today’s Page. “But they occur at least once or twice a week.” With Bush heading to Europe on Friday, many reporters expect at least one to be held this week.

Several of the bureau chiefs cited a briefing one week ago, prior to Bush’s speech on energy, in which journalists on a conference call were not told the identity of the deputy press secretary who led the briefing.

“That was of particular concern,” Page said about the energy briefing. “There is a real proliferation of this.” Johnson agreed, saying that print reporters are often limited to background briefings, only to see the same officials speaking on the record later for broadcast outlets.

“The briefers show up on TV a day later after giving us a group grope on background,” Johnson told E&P. She added, “We are obviously under pressure from our bosses who don?t like anonymous sources.”

Taubman of the Times said his bureau was “deadly serious about trying to change the culture here.” He added that “the credibility of our publication is reduced in the minds of readers when anonymous sources are cited.”

AP began a trend of protests more than two years ago when its reporters were ordered to object each time a background-only briefing is called and ask why it cannot be on the record, Johnson said. USA Today joined the practice last year, which other bureau chiefs hope will eventually spread to all D.C. bureaus.

“We have been a little bit more successful with it,” Johnson said, noting that the number of background briefings has been reduced, but they have not eliminated. “We think the broader group of [bureau] chiefs will start joining in this protest and move the administration toward a policy of more openness.”

Taubman said he would direct more of his reporters to respond to background briefing rules with such protests. “We will make it a more systematic practice of challenging the background press rules,” he told E&P.

But none of those involved were ready to boycott such background briefings. “We think this is an appropriate first step,” Johnson said. “We have been successful in working with press spokesmen and we’ll see where this route gets us.”

CORRECTION, May 3: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quotation to Sandy Johnson of The Associated Press. The attribution has been corrected, to Susan Page of USA Today.

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