WH Background Briefing Draws Press Complaints — Again

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By: Joe Strupp

The background briefing issue — in which White House officials chat with reporters, but only anonymously — was raised again following Tuesday’s announcement of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, drawing some press room objections.

The dispute centered on two senior White House officials holding an off-the-record briefing with reporters following the announcement of Sonia Sotomayor as the nominee, a practice that for years has upset press corps veterans.

Jennifer Loven, Associated Press reporter and president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, issued the following statement on behalf of the WHCA in response to the move:

“The White House Correspondents’ Association believes strongly that access to the president of the United States should always be as open as possible. We protest in the strongest terms the Obama administration’s frequent use of briefings done on a background basis, without specific names attached to the information, especially when the same officials briefing often appear ubiquitously on television shows with similar information.

“Details of the president’s policies and decision-making should be given in the open, in part because it helps the public determine its level of confidence in those details. This is particularly true on matters of particular import, such as a Supreme Court nominee selection; when the issue does not involve sensitive material such as national security information; and when the briefings are held with a mass group. We will continue to work as hard as we can to reduce background briefings to as few as possible.”

Asked if the WHCA planned to formally protest to the White House, Loven e-mailed to E&P: “There has been no ‘formal’ complaint from the WHCA. But we’ve made our position known. It’s an ongoing protest, both for us at the WHCA and several individual news organizations.”

The White House press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post raised the issue in a story, noting: “Several journalists in the Roosevelt Room briefing protested, saying there was no reason the officials couldn’t speak on the record. One of the briefers, senior adviser David Axelrod, would be making a similar case on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and PBS within hours. But Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stood his ground: No names could be attached.”

Also citing the dispute was James Rainey, a Los Angeles Times columnist who often writes about media issues. He opined in a column Wednesday: “While the president introduced the appellate judge before the bright lights and a bank of cameras, his handlers insisted an hour later on continuing an unfortunate practice of past administrations — revealing details of presidential decisions on the hush-hush.”

Rainey later added, “The 20 minutes of ‘background’ Q&A that ensued helped the media fill in a few details of the choice — that Sotomayor met for seven hours last week with administration officials, for example, and that Obama pegged her early on as the preferred choice — but revealed no particularly sensitive or novel information. So why would a White House that promised more transparency insist on anonymity for the two officials who spoke to the press?”


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