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May 3, 2005

Stop Us Before We're Briefed Again

The headline at Romenesko caught my eye. "D.C. bureau chiefs: No more background-only WH briefings." Wow, I thought, they finally did it. They quit the racket. But no. They had not. They had sent an e-mail around, and asked Scott McClellan to change his ways...

1. The Just Quit Strategy. The headline at Romenesko caught my eye. “D.C. bureau chiefs: No more background-only WH briefings.” Wow, I thought, they finally did it. They quit the racket. But no. They had not. They had sent an e-mail around, and asked Scott McClellan to change his ways. They had vowed to object some more, later. Joe Strupp’s account in Editor and Publisher tells of it:

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.

Conspicuous for going unmentioned was one of the most effective ways the press can “raise objections” to background briefings: don’t go to them. Just quit. So here is my Letter to Romenesko on it, published May 3rd. It’s a good way to reach the professional community, which checks in at Romenesko’s place throughout the day.

I read it twice but I still don’t understand Joe Strupp’s story, particularly the part about the meeting between the big bureau chiefs and the White House press secretary. “Those in attendance said they asked McClellan to end the background-only briefings, citing a need to have more openness in their reporting.”

Odd. Why does the press have to ask McClellan to end these stealth briefings, when it could end its own participation at any time? The method for doing so isn’t complicated:

PODIUM: Don’t forget, background briefing at 11 am, previewing the President’s remarks with a nameless deputy press officer…

REPORTER 1: Great, that will give me time to answer e-mail.

REPORTER 2: Scott, when does the working part of the day resume?

Strupp reports his piece in a state of make believe, as if the bureau chiefs are pressing for changes that others ultimately have to make. But the chiefs and their reporters are co-producers of the “background” ritual. It takes two sides— briefers, briefees.

Joe Strupp’s passive tenses disguise the situation: “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.”

So background briefings occur, and they are done, but correspondents don’t cooperate or show up when told. The stealth goes down ‘“via conference calls,” we are told, but of course there is no conference call without reporters on the line who dial the number and join the call. “Stopping” that is simple: hang up the phone. Don’t call in the first place. Do something else with your reporting time.

But active verbs like “join” and “attend” or “hang up” are left out because Strupp is letting the White House press see itself as helpless. “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.” Hear the news? He’s going to consider it! He going’s to consider it!

E & P’s headline: D.C. Bureau Chiefs Launch Push to End On-Background Briefings. Mine would be: Stop Us Before We’re Briefed Again.

How did this make believe happen? The key to it, I believe, is the word boycott. Joe Strupp and the bureau chiefs want us to think that such artless methods as “hang up the phone” and “answer e-mail instead of attending” are some high stakes confrontation. “None of those involved were ready to boycott such background briefings,” Strupp tells us. Boycott? No. The point would be to stop.

2. Strupp’s Letter Back. It’s a double shot of “I’m not an advocate, just a reporter” with a “please try to remember that” chaser. Off-the-shelf stuff, as newspaper columnist Mike Thomas might put it.

I appreciate Jay Rosen’s interest in my article on D.C. bureau chiefs seeking an end to background briefings. But I think he somehow wrongly lumps me in with this group. Saying “Strupp is letting the White House press see itself as helpless” makes it appear that I am advocating for them. That is not true. I am simply reporting what they are doing in reaction to a concern that has been building for months, if not years, about these background events.

I see Rosen’s point that the reporters could simply not attend these briefings, thus ending them. And I mention that in the story, adding that none of those I spoke with were willing to do so. It is obvious that, while they oppose these off-the-record events, they do not want to back off and let a competitor who is not willing to boycott, get the information.

It is also obvious that a boycott would send a stronger message, even if it risks losing out to a competitor. In addition, I think it is important to note that they do not want the briefings to end, but to be on the record.

But the point of my story was not to judge what they are doing, only to report it. Sometimes people with strong views on either side fail to remember that when reading news stories.

As for his pickiness on my use of active or passive phrases, well, I am sorry that he finds some conspiracy in my grammar. I assure you, none exists.

Nah, no conspiracy, Joe. You employed the passive tense and I said it helped you present the press as passive recipient of what the White House chose to do. That is a criticism of your writing, not a conspiracy in your grammar.

3. Strupp Interviews McClellan— Whoops. In a follow-up article, Strupp gets McClellan to reveal his tit-for-tat reasoning:

Scott McClellan, President Bush’s press secretary, said Tuesday evening that he would be glad to 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… The bureau chiefs contend that the background-only briefings force them to use sourcing that is, essentially, anonymous, reducing their credibility.

Uh oh. Later in the day E & P ran a new story where McCllellan says Strupp, who quoted him, misunderstood; and by the end we get the ritual disclaimer: “E & P stands by its original report.” Right out of the script!

Meanwhile, I contend that the words “force them to use sourcing…” are, esssentially, false. (In that White House reporting remains a wholly voluntary practice.) Strupp—who has been captured by his sources on this story—is still participating in that falsehood. He does it by accepting the bureau chiefs’ fiction that unless everyone quits the “background” farce no one can. Therefore the only issue is whether a general boycott will be called. That too is false, but Strupp believes it. Thus:

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. The better way is to build pressure.”

I understand that the trade magazine mentality is hard to overcome, but this is absurd. I have a lot of respect for Clark Hoyt and Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau, too, but from the outside that “highly-competitive atmosphere” seems more like a club. All members agree that principled action is meaningless unless joined by other members. All sign on to the fiction that “essential” news is communicated in background briefings.

That’s not spirited competition; it’s conformity to a Beltway mindset.

4. The New York Times Account. The New York Times story, by Nat Ives, is a better work of journalism, containing more coherent explanations, not just “we tried boycotts, it doesn’t work.”

There is new imagery in it too: a causal chain from readers fed up with anyonymous sourcing generally, to editors getting the message, and top editors pressing the bureaus, and bureau chiefs pressing reporters, who are supposed to plead with McClellan, and, now, finally, the bureau chiefs themselves meeting with the press secretary.

The new discussions over background briefings are being driven largely by pressure from readers and news editors to reduce the use of anonymous sources.

“All of us have bosses who are increasingly disturbed by the use of anonymous sources,” said Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today, who attended the meeting on Friday and attached her name to the e-mail message on Monday. “It’s one reason people say they don’t believe what they read in the newspapers.”

Sandy Johnson, the Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press, said the government’s message was undermined by background briefings. Allowing attribution would increase the credibility of the news media and the White House, she said.

Ron Hutcheson, a White House correspondent for Knight Ridder and president at the White House Correspondents Association, said he once walked out of a background briefing in protest.

But Friday’s meeting at the White House, which Mr. Hutcheson attended, seemed likely to produce better results, he said.

As the issue has drawn more attention, Mr. Hutcheson said, the administration has relented several times at reporters’ requests and converted background briefings into on-the-record sessions.

In Nat Ives’s story, the arguments are better framed. The bureau chiefs say pressure exerted over a long period of time is working, and this is one more step.

Mr. McClellan, who called Friday’s discussion constructive, said he had raised the bureau chiefs’ concerns within the White House. “I’m looking at ways to move forward on the issues raised,” he said.

Thus the “objection” to Strupp’s tit-for-tat quote.

5. Clark, Susan, Sandy, Ron and others in the room with McClellan: I understand your campaign of pressure, and why it asks Scott McClellan to end a practice you yourselves could end, for yourselves, at any time. I understand why you would scorn the “symbolic” walk out as theatrical (and appealing to certain bloggers) but ineffective. Mounting a boycott is high risk and heavy-handed, I have to agree.

But realize that another course of action is available. (Maybe you do and are not talking about it.) Withdraw from the background game entirely by changing your policy unilaterally, and as part of a move to raise transparency overall. Explain it that way to your readers. Tell them that while it may mean some stories and insights go missing, the benefits of ending your participation in a stealth practice far outweigh these losses. Something like…

This is a change others have tried to make. But they always went back to the background because competitors failed to follow them out the door. We are determined to leave that era behind because we know you discount a lot of reporting based on nameless sources. Our new policy is not an attempt to influence the “pack.” It is taken independently of what others in the profession may decide to do.

Backgrounders by officials of a major news making operation are no longer fair game for our reporters, period. We hope you like the change. We’re feeling good about it. But just to make sure we’re not kidding ourselves, we will track every story we missed by not being there.

And so on. That’s what I meant by: don’t join a boycott, just stop. It’s easily explained and more likely to build trust with users than it is to “cost” the operation in blown stories or missing nuance. So there is a choice apart from what the herd will do, and apart from what McClellan can be coaxed into. Strupp, our correspondent on the scene, never asked about that.

6. Trust and Interactivity. Notice, however, that long arc from the diffuse sentiment among disaffected readers to the meeting with McClellan seeking concrete results. In that series of relays and switches, a message is sent about what we trust and why we don’t.

As the word is passed we see public opinion trying to register itself in press behavior at the level of rules observed by the DC bureaus, and meetings held with White House officials. Other factors are present too, but there’s a clear arc of influence there— using “pressure” to communicate itself.

The new discussions over background briefings are being driven largely by pressure from readers and news editors to reduce the use of anonymous sources.

If instead of interference we saw this as a kind of instruction, from the public to the press, we might ask how a relay system like that is improved, tightened up, made flexible, and brought up to modern standards. We might see that a weblog, a far more flexible platform, has this kind of instruction system built into it.

That is what “interactive” means. Instead of a long arc you have a quick comment thread, or some other lightweight blip. There is constant interaction and adjustment to users. That constancy makes online journalism a different animal, and the demand for it is vexing “traditional” providers, who are organized to withstand public pressure, not to interact with intelligent users.

Down through the history of reportage, people who valued their correspondents (and paid for accurate reports) also had a way of instructing their correspondents. Maybe there is more room for this idea today.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Suburban Guerrilla, she’s had enough: “Absolutely, they should boycott this nonsense, and their bosses should back them. When are they going to figure it out? The real stories aren’t in the White House briefing room. They’re in the paperwork - and they’re out in the departments, where people are willing to talk.”

Dan Froomkin (he does the White House Briefing column in the Washington Post) says “background” events are as empty as all the other briefings by the Bush team.

The anonymity does not typically translate to frankness. The anonymous briefings tend to be as full of spin and empty of straight answers as the ones that are on the record. (Judge for yourself; the White House doesn’t post a lot of the background briefing transcripts, but some of them can be found here.)

Practically speaking, all that the cloak of anonymity does is hinder accountability and undermine journalistic credibility.

Precisely. Froomkin knows this one inside and out. And he has a lot of smart things to say about online journalism, blogging and editors.

“Wankers.” Atrios says my “don’t show up” solution is ideal.

But let me add a couple of other suggestions. First, if anonymous background briefings are here to stay, then the press can legitimize them to some degree by adopting one new standard of behavior — if the background briefer later contradicts publicly something said at the briefing, the anonymity is gone.

And, second, back to Jack Shafer’s longstanding suggestion — just leak the damn names to pesky bloggers like me. Most newspaper readers will lack the relevant information, but those who care to know can find out.

As ridiculous as they are, the anonymous background briefings aren’t the real problem - it’s the Judith Miller pressjob, in which reporters dutifully report administration official pronouncements as newsworthy, whether or not they contain any truth, believing their job is “not to collect information and analyze it independently.”

Chad the Elder has a humorous response at Fraters Libertas called Scott McClellan: Enabler.

Matt Welch says in comments: “To think that these White House reporters, operating in one of the freest press traditions in the world, are begging the guvmint to please save them from themselves, would be infuriating if it wasn’t so funny.” His suggestion:

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if large news organization engaged in a sort of Shock Therapy, whereby their entire Washington bureaus were sent on a one- or six-month vacation or job rotation, replaced by a gang of rank outsiders who would have to reinvent the local traditions from scratch. It’s hard to imagine the results being anything worse.

Earlier PressThink: To Liberate From the White House the White House Press.

Weldon Berger of BTC News has a reply to my post:

I’d go Jay one further and suggest that reporters report attempted anonymous backgrounders by describing the prospective subject and briefer.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan today asked reporters to attend an anonymous background briefing on the president’s upcoming trip from the White House residential wing to the Oval Office. The anonymous briefer was to have been McClellan himself. The newly reanimated White House press corpse declined to attend the briefing or preserve the anonymity of the briefer.

I’d also recommend that White House reporters enroll in the Helen Thomas seminar on How To Ask Annoying Questions That Need Answering But Are Marginalized Because No One Else (Except Eric Brewer) Is Asking Them Or Even Wants To. The press on the whole have lately been a little more feisty about asking important questions but are still not reporting, for the most part, that they aren’t getting answers.

There’s more to his post, “Please, sir, may I have another?”

Good question from FishbowlDC: “If reporters are really as (rightly) outraged about the practice as they say they are, shouldn’t they perhaps use their own soapboxes?”

“Go after the Iron Triangles.” Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation, a blogger with his own copy desk, has a view. He e-mails PressThink:

Those kinds of background briefings are commonplace throughout the federal government and became so a long time ago. The problem is everybody fears missing a big story and thus is afraid to say no when they know a rival will say yes. My suggestion is to restore a workable agency beat structure and day after day after go after stories on the government’s own Enron accounting scandals, subject every federal program to a rigorous, data-driven analysis of results or lack thereof and exposing the hypocrisy of the Iron Triangles (bureaucrats, special interests, politicans) that run this town.

It’s a myth that people don’t read government scandal stories. What they don’t read is agenda-driven pablum that never challenges the politicians and bureuacrats to justify their existence. Put another way, a non-ideologically anchored muckracking has the irresistible virtue of giving the hacks and hypocrits at all levels of government so much to worry about that they no longer have time to manipulate.

Terry Heaton, former TV news director, now a consultant, blogger and troublemaker, says starting a blog with PR intentions is a way of hiding:

In my view, when we shelter ourselves from the people in our communities — regardless of how we attempt to position it — we’re still participating in news as a lecture. We’re still playing our “big media” games with people. When we do so and call it a blog, I’m going to say we’re fooling ourselves.

So the question isn’t really “What are the rules?” but more “What’s the best way for me to participate?”

“What’s the best way for me to participate?” is exactly what does not get asked; he’s right about that. And he’s even more on in An open letter to TV news people, which is about the fantasy world local TV news professionals are living in.

Sydney Schanberg, the new PressClips columnist, wrote of this issue in the Village Voice:

Take Ron Hutcheson, the White House correspondent for the Knight-Ridder papers. He has been fighting the battle—and at times has found himself alone. When the White House billed a press briefing about a Bush foreign trip last year as on the record and then changed it on the spot to off the record, a couple of other journalists complained briefly. Hutcheson kept arguing for a return to the original ground rules or at least an explanation. It was futile. The anonymous official told him: “This is the way we do it. If you don’t like it, you can leave.” “I just got pissed off and I walked out,” recalls Hutcheson. None of the others followed him.

What would have happened if the rest of the newspeople at the briefing had also walked out? Well, not a great deal all at once, but a message would have been sent.

“It could turn into an embarrassment for the Bush stonewallers,” Schanberg wrote, adding a crucial qualifier. “Especially if reporters and editors were able to effectively explain to the American people why the press’s role is still so important to them.”

That is a mighty significant “if” today.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 3, 2005 5:25 PM