Reporters Challenge McClellan on Sources, ‘Newsweek’

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By: E&P Staff

In the aftermath of the Newsweek retraction of its item on U.S. guards flushing a Koran down a toilet at Guantanomo, many issues pertaining to journalism and ethics have emerged. One of the most prominent is the use and over-use of anonymous sources, particularly when they are single sources.

While most of the attention has been focused on Newsweek and its reporter, Michael Isikoff, it also played out in a heated way Tuesday afternoon at the White House press briefing conducted by Scott McClellan. As E&P has reported, tensions have been rising there for weeks, with reporters demanding that more of the single-source, anonymous background briefings be put on the record.

Some reporters on Tuesday also took exception to what they perceive as unseemly pressure by the White House on Newsweek to produce something in print that would undue the damage abroad.

Here are the relevant portions of today’s exchanges. The first followed McClellan’s statement that he wanted Newsweek to write something further:

Q With respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek? Do you think it’s appropriate for you, at that podium, speaking with the authority of the President of the United States, to tell an American magazine what they should print?

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m not telling them. I’m saying that we would encourage them to help —

Q You’re pressuring them.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I’m saying that we would encourage them —

Q It’s not pressure?

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, this report caused serious damage to the image of the United States abroad. And Newsweek has said that they got it wrong. I think Newsweek recognizes the responsibility they have. We appreciate the step that they took by retracting the story. Now we would encourage them to move forward and do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done by this report. And that’s all I’m saying. But, no, you’re absolutely right, it’s not my position to get into telling people what they can and cannot report.

Q: In context of the Newsweek situation, I think we hear the caution you’re giving us about reporting things based on a single anonymous source. What, then, are we supposed to do with information that this White House gives us under the conditions that it comes from a single anonymous source?

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m not sure what exactly you’re referring to.

Q: Frequent briefings by senior administration officials in which the ground rules are we can only identify them as a single anonymous source.

MR. McCLELLAN: Ken, I know that there is an issue when it comes to the media in terms of the use of anonymous sources, but the issue is not related to background briefings. But I do believe that we should work to move away from those kind of background briefings. …

But there is a credibility problem in the media regarding the use of anonymous sources, but it’s because of fabricated stories, and it’s because of situations like this one over the weekend. It’s not because of the background briefings that you may be referring to.

Q: What prevents this administration from just saying from this point forward, you will identify who it is that’s talking to us?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of background briefings, if that’s what you’re asking about, which I assume it is, let me point out that what I’m talking about there are officials who are helping to provide context to on-the-record comments made by people like the President or the Secretary of State or others. … And as I said, one of the concerns is that some media organizations have used anonymous sources that are hiding behind that anonymity in order to generate negative attacks.

Q: But to our readers, viewers and listeners, I think it’s all the same.

MR. McCLELLAN: And then you have a situation — you have a situation where we found out later that quotes were attributed to people that they didn’t make. Or you have a situation where you now learn that a single source was used for verifying this allegation — and that source, himself, said he could not personally verify the accuracy of the report. …

Q: With all due respect, though, it sounds like you’re saying your single anonymous sources are OK and everyone else’s aren’t.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I’m not saying that at all. In fact, I think you may have missed what I said. I think that we should move away from the use of — the long-used practice of the background briefings, and we’ve taken steps to do that. …

Q We also have incidents, like most recently with the energy speech, where it was before the president made his comments, it was all we had — and we had to make the decision of whether to report this from anonymous sources who, frankly, in that case, we didn’t even know who they were.

MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of that one, I mean, that was simply done because the president was making the announcement the next day. But, anyway, we’ve taken steps to address that matter.

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