October 4, 2013

House Speaker John Boehner made a great deal of news today when he appeared at a news conference and cited a whole bunch of stonewalling from the other side: President Obama wouldn’t negotiate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid demanded a Republican “surrender.” And then this, in Boehner’s words:

“This morning, I get the Wall Street Journal and it says, ‘we don’t care how long this lasts, because we’re winning.’ This isn’t some damn game. The American people don’t want their government shut down, and neither do I.”

With that reference, Boehner was zeroing in a on a Journal story by Carol E. Lee and Peter Nicholas, titled “White House’s Hard Line on Shutdown, Debt Ceiling Has Risks Attached.” The piece pointed out that the White House just wasn’t moving, to the delight of at least one bureaucrat, who managed to sneak a line or two into the story:

Said a senior administration official: “We are winning. … It doesn’t really matter to us” how long the shutdown lasts “because what matters is the end result.”

Just goes to show you: John Boehner isn’t a very careful reader of journalism. Were he, he wouldn’t have premised an entire news conference, not to mention a possibly historic outburst, on the wobbly rant of some anonymous government official!

Just kidding, of course. Boehner knew exactly what he was doing. When it comes to scoring political points, anonymous sources work just fine. As the public sees the Boehner video over and over, it won’t take note that he was anchoring his anger to some possibly disaffected or irrelevant aide who may well not represent the feelings of the president’s inner circle. Nor will it know that the quote bears ellipses and a paraphrasing interruption. And it may not realize, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, that similar language has come from the Republican side.

Whatever the case, White House press secretary Jay Carney judged the anonymous quote’s fame substantial enough to warrant a response.

After a bit of back-and-forth, Carney tweeted:

All we need now is for a White House official to deliver a warning on the flimsiness of anonymous sources, which they themselves deploy on occasion. That’s the scenario that played out during the Syria crisis in August. Though Secretary of State John Kerry alleged on the record that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had committed the “indiscriminate slaughter of civilians,” an Associated Press story used anonymous sources to assert that the intelligence wasn’t a “slam dunk.”

When pressed on the viability of the AP story, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest quipped, “You’ve got a handful of anonymous individuals who are quoted in that story.”

Now, you’ve got a single anonymous individual quoted in the Journal. That individual is somewhere out there right now, either ecstatic to have slimed his colleagues in unaccountable fashion, petrified at the prospect of being outed or amused at the media ruckus in response to the remarks. Or all three.

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