By: Joe Strupp
Scott McClellan, President Bush’s press secretary, said Tuesday evening that he would end the use of background-only briefings — if White House reporters would stop using anonymous sources in their reporting.
“I told them upfront that I would be the first to sign on if we could get an end to the use of anonymous sources in the media,” McClellan told E&P, referring to a meeting he had with a half-dozen Washington bureau chiefs last week. He said that “people in the heartland” feel that “anonymous sources use them to hide behind efforts to generate negative publicity.”
McClellan’s comments followed E&P’s report Tuesday that a group of top Washington bureau chiefs had launched a campaign to pressure government officials, including McClellan, to allow briefings with reporters to be held on the record. The bureau chiefs contend that the background-only briefings force them to use sourcing that is, essentially, anonymous, reducing their credibility.
[After this story appeared today on E&P Online, McClellan told E&P that he strongly objected to how it characterized his comment about agreeing to end background-only briefings if reporters quit using anonymous sources elsewhere. “You may have misinterpreted my remarks,” McClellan wrote in an e-mail. “I was simply saying that this is a larger issue than just background briefings in any administration, as I indicated to you. It is about the widespread use of anonymous sources by the media, an issue that media organizations have acknowledged — see today’s New York Times story. My comment to you was reflecting that I would welcome the media getting rid of anonymous sourcing — with some rare exceptions that are more than justifiable.” E&P stands by its original report.]
Some veteran journalists have suggested that Washington reporters boycott background-only briefings to send a stronger signal. “Maybe it’s time to take another shot at it,” Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of The Washington Post, told E&P. He recalled a failed boycott attempt in the late 1960s, which he says did not work because it did not have unified support. “There is certainly more interest in it now,” he declared.
McClellan would not speculate on what a boycott would do, saying only “the best way to do this is to take steps to address the issue. To have them come in and sit down and talk about it, which we have.”
He said that background briefings, which often precede a foreign trip or a policy speech, actually help reporters. “There is a need for [administration officials] to provide background without attribution,” McClellan said, citing a foreign trip as an example. “You might be providing context of what another country’s views are and they might take exception to doing that on the record.” He also pointed out that “you probably already have on-the-record comments from the secretary of state or national security advisor.”
So why have others on background only? “It is something most reporters appreciate in that context.”
[In his e-mail to E&P today, McClellan added: “I want to work toward the goal of ending the long-used practice that the bureau chiefs have expressed concern about. We have in fact taken steps in that direction, and White House correspondents have expressed their appreciation for it. The briefings in question have typically been used to provide context when other senior officials are on the record. The bureau chiefs also expressed in our meeting their need to address the wide use of anonymous sources in general. As I said, I think one of the concerns the American people have is that sources hide behind their anonymity to provide selective information to reporters in order to generate negative attacks. I think Americans naturally view such reports with great suspicion. We all have an obligation to work together to address these issues.”]
When asked about background briefings on upcoming Bush speeches, McClellan said, “These individuals are trying to provide the information about what the president is going to say the next day, but we wanted to leave it to the president to announce.” But wouldn’t the president still garner much more news when he makes the predicted announcement himself? The press secretary said, “we would rather leave it to the president.”
McClellan added that forcing reporters to get some information only on background is not the same as reporters choosing to use anonymous sources.
Still, McClellan claimed he had reduced the number of background-only briefings and agreed in his meeting with bureau chiefs to “keep an open mind …. We have ended some of the background briefings on specific policies,” he said, declining to cite which policies. “There are additional steps that can be taken. This is a practice that has been in use for a long time and we want to make it better.”
None of the current Washington bureau chiefs who spoke with E&P were willing to hint at any boycott, citing the competitive atmosphere that would keep some from participating.
“I have never seen them succeed,” said Clark Hoyt, Knight Ridder newspapers’ Washington editor, explaining he has seen other failed attempts since he first began covering Washington 25 years ago. “We operate in a highly competitive atmosphere,” he noted. “The better way is to build pressure.”