Wednesday, May 18, 2005

More On Single Anonymous Sources

At first, Scotty tried to play dumb: "I'm not sure what exactly you're referring to."

Then Scotty insisted, insisted and insisted that pro-administration ducks were different animals than con-administration ducks that walked and quacked the same way.

But when that didn't work, Scotty opted for the safer route and went back to playing dumb.

I'm referring to a slugfest from Tuesday's White House Press Briefing involving Scott McClellan and a reporter (who is unfortunately unnamed in the transcript) who argued with the Press Secretary about the hypocrisy in the "new" White House stance on the Media's use of single anonymous sources (transcript link):

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. I've been working with the bureau chiefs on that very issue. And I think we have taken some steps, and I think you have noticed that.

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. I don't think that that is the issue here when it comes to the use or widespread use of anonymous sources by the media. I think it's --

Q But--

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me finish -- I think it's a much larger issue. 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. And I think that that's -- you know, that's one of the issue that concerns the American people when they look at the media, and I think sometimes the media does have difficulty going back and kind of critiquing itself. And sometimes it's convenient for the media to point to others or to point to something other than internally. I think it's an issue that they need to work to address internally, and we'll work to address from our standpoint, as well. And those bureau chiefs that I met with have indicated that it is a problem that they're working to address internally, as well.

So I think we need to talk about the larger issue here when we talk about it.

Q With all due respect, though, it sounds like you're saying your single anonymous sources are okay 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. But I was putting in context what these background briefings that you're referring to are about. They're about individuals providing context to remarks or policies that may have been implemented by the administration, and you have other officials on the record talking about --

Q Sometimes you do --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- hang on -- talking about those policies. You also have incidents, or instances, where individuals are providing context to meetings with world leaders, and there's some diplomatic sensitivities involved there.

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: This is one of the issues that I sat down and discussed with the bureau chiefs. I think it's best to kind of have those discussions with the bureau chiefs; I did. We've made some progress. I think they had a legitimate issue that they brought up. But there's a larger issue here. Let's not point to the background briefings as the problem with the credibility in the media about using anonymous sources, because it's a much larger issue than that, Ken. And I think you recognize that.

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.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the "revolt" of Washington bureau chiefs against "off-the-record and background-only White House press briefings" which they are "forced" to cover: Jay Rosen Vs. Joe Strupp.

I'm relieved to discover that Scotty's been having "discussions" with the bureau chiefs and that they've "made some progress."

But shouldn't the "discussions" involve the White House officials who could actually do something about this practice?

Knight-Ridder's Clark Hoyt met with Scott McClellan a few days after the energy speech incident mentioned in the transcript (short summary: the day before Bush gave his speech the White House print journalists were given an off-the-record background briefing in a conference call in which they weren't even allowed to know who they were being briefed by). Clark Hoyt wrote a commentary about the "discussion" yesterday (Media, government lose credibility because of anonymous sources):

"Several days later, a small group of Washington journalists, including me and Knight Ridder White House correspondent Ron Hutcheson, who is president of the White House Correspondents' Association, met with White House press secretary Scott McClellan to urge that all administration briefings be put on the record. We argued that the credibility of the White House and the press corps alike was being undermined by overuse of anonymity."

"McClellan said he'd agree immediately to a ban on the use of anonymous sources by both the administration and the media. But even if he tried, he'd never be able to enforce it in the White House, where his own boss meets on background with journalists."

"Despite that ploy, McClellan also listened carefully and responded. On the president's recent trip to Russia and Eastern Europe, White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley gave reporters a rare on-the-record briefing."

Hoyt calls this "a small step, but a start."

I don't want to slam Mr. Hoyt too harshly because I agreed with much of his commentary (especially when he mentions "deep throat" as a "beneficial" single anonymous source...but not especially when he blames Newsweek for causing deaths with their story), but if he thinks this is a "small step" towards progress then I'd say he's gotta be delusional.

The "revolt" is essentially silly.

The Administration has plenty of allies in the Media. Instead of group briefings with single anonymous sources, there will inevitably be more "exclusives" involving official single anonymous sources for Administration (overly) friendly "news organizations."

It's the Press that has to wake up. It's the Press that has to take a stance.

Single anonymous sources sometimes ARE necessary. Not in order to "generate negative attacks" but to protect whistleblowers. Cheerleaders should never be allowed to go off-the-record.

The Press doesn't need to discuss anything with Scott McClellan. As Jay Rosen has often written, the Press doesn't have to attend the dog-and-pony shows. Just don't freaking cover them. Let the other guys get their "exclusives."

The use of single anonymous cheerleading voices is straight-out propaganda.

ENDNOTE: I've been a very vocal fan of Jay Rosen's work the last few months, but I'm not happy with his last two articles at Press Think.

A few days ago, Mr. Rosen applauded departing NY Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent's influence on the Siegal Committee committed to "preserving our readers' trust" which I wrote about last week: The New York Times Reconsiders Gay Marriage. It's a shame that Jay Rosen seems to be concerned that the homophobic community has been "excluded" from Times coverage of gay marriage. Does he also believe that white supremacists are getting shut out by the "liberal" media?

And yesterday, Jay Rosen parrotted the Bush Administration rhetoric when he claimed that "it was news weakly made that helped trigger fatal events far beyond the world of Newsweek and its subscribers."

Fortunately, other voices on the left have taken Mr. Rosen to task for the kind of sloppy reporting that Mr. Rosen regularly condemns when it's committed by the Press.

On Sunday, Armando at Daily Kos wrote - in a front-paged post - that Jay Rosen "blew a lot of my respect with his paean to Daniel Okrent" and that parts of the paean were "outrageous", "crap", and "stupid." But Armando really nailed it when he added this comment to the Kos thread:

"Okrent was concerned about balance NOT accuracy. And since he stated the Times was a "liberal" paper, his balance concerns always were addressed to "unfair" coverage of bigots."

And, yesterday, CJR's Steve Lovelady criticized Jay Rosen in comments attached to the Newsweek article which Jay basically has ignored (though, to his credit, Jay did link back to Armando's criticism on Sunday). This comment by Steve Lovelady is a must-read comment:

"This premise that Newsweek caused rioting Afghans to kill each other holds even less water than Newsweek's own orignal reporting -- and that's saying something. As early as last Thursday, Gen. Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, after hearing from commanders on the scene in Afghanistan, said that the "rioting was related more to the ongoing political reconciliation process in Afghanistan than anything else." Somehow, that little tidbit gets conveniently left out by most cable TV carnival barkers and hysterical bloggers eager to make the logical leap. Equally ignored is Gen. Myers' observation that his senior commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Eichenberry, reports that "[the rioting] was not at all tied to the article in the magazine." (Emphasis added.)"

"But who needs to listen to the guys on the scene when you have everyone from Scott McClellan to Donald Rumsfeld to Jeff Jarvis, all trying to tie those deaths to one line in one report that was relegated (by editors, let us note) to the speculation section (Periscope) of a news magazine?"

"Facts -- they're so fucking inconvenient!"

Come on, Jay. You should know better than that.

Sure, I'm disappointed, but I haven't lost any respect for you...yet.


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