The Associated Press, that monster of breaking news, seldom allows its dispatches to veer into the realm of opinion-mongering. Yesterday, it veered just a bit. The article in question was pegged to Sunshine Week, “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” The title of the piece: “During Sunshine Week, Justice Department urges changes to protect new category of gov’t secrets.”
The point of the story was that in spite of President Obama’s promise to create the most transparent government ever, “old habits die hard.”
And the AP really stuck it to the forces of un-transparency working under the president:
The White House organized a conference call with two senior administration officials to preview an announcement by President Barack Obama about an important China trade issue but told reporters that no one could be quoted by name. The officials were U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, Michael Froman.
Way to be, AP! Way to fight for on-the-recordness! That’s just the sort of principled stand this industry needs — no way is AP going to tolerate background officials in its reporting!
Or is it? The “important China trade issue” referenced in the AP story on Sunshine Week? That’s all about an initiative by President Obama and U.S. allies to address Chinese trade practices through the World Trade Organization (WTO). The AP should indeed know a lot about that story; it helped to break it, after all.
On Monday evening the AP’s Julie Pace wrote that “the U.S. will ask the World Trade Organization to facilitate talks with China over its curtailment of exports of rare earth minerals. The U.S. is bringing the case to the WTO along with the European Union and Japan. . .”
Now take a look at AP’s sources for the news: “Senior Obama administration officials. . .”
The whole sequence requires an unpacking exercise. The AP gets early background briefings on an important news story and breaks news on the topic. The rest of the media has to scramble to match the AP story. The Obama administration holds a background briefing with the media to fill them in on what the AP had already learned the day before. The AP publishes a separate story criticizing that background briefing as a detour from President Obama’s transparency pledge.
There could be some hypocrisy at work here. After all, the AP may have been treated to the same sort of background briefing that it criticized — only an earlier, AP-only version. If so, then it should be more careful about slamming background briefings. If, on the other hand, the AP just out-hustled the rest of the press corps to secure these one-on-one briefings with administration officials, then it can blast away at mass background briefings with a full charge of righteous indignation.
Of course, we don’t know how the AP rounded up the story. Because the White House isn’t saying. Neither is the AP. “We won’t discuss our editorial deliberations,” says Paul Colford, a spokesman for an organization that one day ago made a big fuss about transparency.