Reporters prefer that government officials talk “on the record,” meaning you can quote them by name.
They are willing to go “on background” — for example, a “senior Justice Department official” — in the hopes that important, maybe even a bit sensitive, information might be forthcoming.
But there’s nothing more frustrating — or more useless — than a background briefing when no news is committed.
Take, for example, a May 24 briefing in Addis Ababa for reporters traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry on his trip this week to Ethiopia for the African Union Summit and to the Mideast.
After advising reporters to “drink a lot of water” and not to “eat raw vegetables,” a “Senior State Department Official” — who was an expert in the region was asked whether the “Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations” in battling extremists in the north.
The official, according to a transcript, responded with a long discussion of why Nigeria is “extremely important,” even”very critical.” (Stop the presses!)
So the reporter tried again:
“Right, but do you still believe that gross human rights violations. . . are being perpetrated by government forces. . .?”
“We continue to monitor,” the official said, and “we’re going to continue to monitor” and “continue to work with the Nigerians. . . to address the situation, . . and I think the concern is that because of our concern, it does continue.”
The reporter tried again.
“We will continue to monitor and work with the Nigerian government to address those concerns,” the official said.
After more sparring, the reporter said: “Wait. Can I just — it’s either continuing, or it’s not continuing. It’s a very simple question.”
At this point, an official identified as the “Moderator,” stepped in:
“It’s continuing. It’s continuing,” the Moderator said.
Ahh. So “human rights violations are continuing, correct?” the reporter asked.
“Human rights violations, yes,” the official said.
The briefing was so awful, we hear, that it has spawned a new verb, using the name of the official. (Since we can’t name him, we’ll call him Smith.)
Reporters are now using a rating scale of one “Smith” to three “Smiths” based on the sheer ridiculousness of the backgrounder.