When NBC News White House reporter Chuck Todd conducts background interviews with government officials these days, he and his source usually aren’t the only ones in the room or on the call. Typically, there’s a third party: A representative of the White House’s press staff monitors the conversation.
Sometimes, the press monitor interjects to clarify a point the official makes. Other times, he or she remains silent. Each time, however, “it feels like having a third wheel on a date,” Todd says. “It’s like having a chaperon.” He adds, “There’s so much precaution now in the way people in power interact with the press.”
The press-minder phenomenon isn’t limited to the White House. Reporters who cover other parts of official Washington, such as Capitol Hill, can usually count on encountering an official escort, turning a one-on-one interview into a one-on-two. The same thing happens irregularly to journalists who interview sports, entertainment and business figures.
But the White House — perhaps the single most intensely covered institution in the United States — may be the most diligent user of the chaperoned interview. Almost every officially sanctioned exchange between reporters and the proverbial “senior administration officials” is conducted in the presence of a press staffer, even when the interview is “on background,” meaning the source will not be identified by name. Even lesser officials are subject to the policy; one reporter says a press attendant sat in when she interviewed Sam Kass, the chef who advises first lady Michelle Obama on her “Let’s Move!” health and nutrition program.
This week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest complained that The Washington Post had relied too heavily on anonymous sources in a story about how officials had ignored warnings of a budding immigration crisis.
Implicit in Earnest’s comment: If every interview was attended by a White House press monitor, there would be no anonymous sources.
Journalists tend to view minders with suspicion, if not outright alarm. A third party can alter any interaction in unforeseen ways. One White House reporter notes with irritation that minders have sometimes cut off contentious questioning or otherwise interrupted the flow of conversation.
More broadly, journalists see it as part of a larger official effort to shape their coverage, similar to demands to approve quotes before they’re published or to keep even the most mundane information off the record.
“If you have a minder there, it sits in [a source’s] brain that they’re supposed to stay on message,” said Peter Baker, who covers the White House for the New York Times. “They’re less likely to share something other than the talking points.” Having minders around, Baker says, “is obviously intended to control the message. Let’s put it this way: It’s not intended to increase candor.”
Veteran reporters such as Baker recall a time when the middlemen stayed out of the picture. During the Clinton administration, Baker says, he would call Gene Sperling, then a young economic adviser, and chat freely with him. But as director of the National Economic Council under President Obama, Sperling referred Baker’s calls to the press office, following protocols discouraging unauthorized contacts with the news media. “He [was] operating within the system,” Baker says. “He doesn’t want to violate it.”
Baker acknowledges that there isn’t much journalists can do about it. With dozens of reporters clamoring for interviews each day, the White House can dictate its terms of engagement. And often the terms include a minder.
One reporter says she beats the minder system by calling officials at home or on their cellphones on weekends. After doing so, she’ll cover her tracks and her source’s by requesting an “official” interview with the person she’s already interviewed. If her request is approved, she and her source will pretend that they haven’t spoken previously.
Other reporters say officials are often happy to have a minder present because it gives them cover in the event they are suspected of leaking information to the news media.
White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz declined repeated requests for an interview to discuss the administration’s policies about interviews. Instead, he e-mailed a statement:
“As does almost every enterprise, we do this sometimes, particularly when the [interview subject] does not have a lot of experience dealing with reporters on a day-to-day basis. This can help for two reasons: First, press staff handling the story can hear the interview, be aware of exchanges, any remaining questions, etc. If reporters are conducting multiple interviews, it would make sense that staff are aware of all of the information going to the journalist. Second, this helps make sure previously-agreed upon ground-rules are observed, and that someone who doesn’t have experience dealing with reporters is not put in the position of trying to negotiate press mechanics,” such as the distinctions among on the record, off the record and “on background.”
In fact, minding isn’t necessarily about the interview itself but about its aftermath.
“It’s Media Relations 101,” says Michael Feldman, the founder and managing director of the Glover Park Group, a Washington-based communications firm. Feldman was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. “Having an extra set of eyes and ears on the interaction between a journalist and a subject is helpful. . . . It’s more to stay ahead of the game by being aware of what’s happening in the interview. If my client says something particularly newsworthy, I want to know it as it’s happening because I want to be prepared” to respond after the information becomes public.
In corporate settings, there’s no uniform policy on minders, says Ben Feller, a managing director of Mercury, a New York-based media-strategy company. Some public-relations firms urge their clients to take along an adviser for interviews, he said. But others don’t feel it is necessary.
“If a consultant is in the room,” he says, “it should be in a secondary role, to help with follow-up requests that might come up in discussions, or to establish a sense of introduction that could help the conversation go even better for the client and reporter. Often my counsel is that we should not have a consultant in the room.”
Feller has been both minder and the minded. As chief White House correspondent for the Associated Press until early last year, he was part of a reporting team that interviewed President George W. Bush in the Oval Office; he also interviewed President Obama twice. Each president was accompanied in the interview by the White House press secretary, but Feller didn’t feel put off by the minder’s presence. He also had many interviews with lesser White House officials, both accompanied and not.
“Professional reporters are still going to ask whatever they want,” Feller said, “and presidents are certainly going to answer however they want. What matters is what happens between the reporter and the interviewee. And if you’re operating at that level as a reporter, you better not be worried about who is sitting in the room. In the private sector, I think the issue is not whether a consultant is in the room but what that person does in the room.”
Feller says that an interview subject who is well informed and ready for an interview doesn’t really need the hand-holding a minder might provide. “The most important factor is what happens before the interview,” he says. “The preparation is what’s essential. . . . You think through the most important points. You ensure reporters have facts in advance, particularly baseline dates or data that could bog an interview down. You demystify the interview process and prepare clients well for it. And then you let it happen, unfettered, as it should be.”
NBC’s Todd says he can understand some of the “paranoia” an interview subject may feel about talking to a reporter and why a subject might want an ally in the room. In the age of social media, he notes, an inflammatory or erroneous comment can go viral quickly, damaging or even destroying the speaker’s career. In such an environment, having a third party to keep the record straight or to reinforce the ground rules might be a good idea.
Todd knows the drill. He’s been interviewed by journalists, too. And on many occasions, a press representative from NBC minded his conversation.