August 29, 2013

Cynicism erupted today when White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest pooh-poohed something that he and other White House officials do all the time. In a press briefing heavy on Syria developments, Earnest was asked about a much-trafficked report from the Associated Press on the viability of intelligence “linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people.”

Not a “slam dunk” situation, noted the AP, which cited “multiple U.S. officials” for its reporting. Also based on anonymous sourcing, the AP reported that officials “could not pinpoint the exact locations of Assad’s supplies of chemical weapons” and that U.S. analysts “have not been able to track what was moved or, in some cases, where it was relocated.”

CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett today asked Earnest about those allegations, and a juicy back-and-forth unfolded:

Q: I want to read to you a couple things from this AP story this morning and get your reaction. Quote: “Intelligence officials say they could not pinpoint the exact locations of Assad’s supplies of chemical weapons.” It goes on to say, “The U.S. and allied spies have lost track of who controls some of the country’s chemical weapons supplies.” That’s according to two intelligence officials and two U.S. officials. Do you agree?

MR. EARNEST: I’m not in the position to talk about classified intelligence assessments. I’m not — I’m not in a position to do that from here.

Q: (off mike) — absolutely clear, repeatedly — you and Jay have said this — absolutely clear, the U.S. government is certain that the Syrian regime has been in complete control of its chemical weapons supplies. This story —

MR. EARNEST: The president —

Q: — (off mike) — four different people in this government saying they are not sure about that.

MR. EARNEST: You’ve got a handful of anonymous individuals who are quoted in that story.

Q: Do you disagree with it?

MR. EARNEST: And I have an on-the-record statement from the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, an on-the-record statement from the vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. I have on-the-record statements from the president of the United States, the vice president, the secretary of state. I’ve got on-the-record statements from the prime minister of the United Kingdom. We’ve got the president of France. We’ve got a multilateral resolution passed by the Arab League indicating all of these things. So I leave it to you to decide whether or not you believe the —

And on it went. The irony of a White House official downplaying anonymous quotations didn’t squeak past Twitter:

 

 

Following the briefing-room clash over anonymity and on-the-recordity, the Erik Wemple Blog reached out to Earnest for a fuller explanation. So he explained: “I was acknowledging my belief in a case that reporters make to me regularly — that on-the-record statements are more powerful and have more integrity than anonymous quotes, and in this case that’s particularly important given the stature of the officials” who’ve made on-the-record statements about Syria’s actions. But what about the irony/contradiction/hypocrisy in a White House official dissing the weight of anonymous reporting? Earnest: “I would say that it’s ironic to make that argument when I was on camera, in an on-the-record briefing that lasted more than an hour.”

And the deputy press secretary said the White House often faces down anonymous reporting: “It’s . . . not uncommon for us to be in a position similar to the one I was in in the briefing today: People will say anonymous things criticizing the administration on a regular basis and have frequently found myself in the position of saying that’s wrong.” That circumstance, Earnest continued, leads to situations where the lead of a story contains an “anonymous accusation against the administration and several graphs later, an on-the-record rebuttal from the administration.”

Fair points, all. Earnest needn’t consider any retractions, corrections or walk-backs, and he affirmed that he wasn’t contemplating any such thing. After all, the statement is beyond dispute: On-the-record testimony is indeed stronger than anonymous stuff from unnamed “U.S. officials” and “sources close to” stuff. Yet the beauty of today’s session is that White House reporters now have a White House official on the record about the dubiety of anonymous quotes. If nothing else, it’s a cudgel for correspondents to deploy each time the administration tries to arrange another self-serving background briefing.

They may have some work to do, too. When asked whether the dis of anonymous reporting means the White House is ready to re-evaluate its reliance on background interviews, Earnest said no.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.