Remember, You Didn't Hear This From Me . . .
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
In Washington, sometimes the most difficult thing to extract from the federal bureaucracy is a name.
After 12 West Virginia coal miners died in an accident last month, the Mine Safety and Health Administration offered a briefing for reporters with two of the agency's top officials. As is often the case, the officials insisted that the briefing be "on background" -- that is, reporters could use the information in their articles but not quote the officials by name.
A funny thing happened on the way to deadline. The reporters on the conference call revolted and pressed to put the session on the record -- and the agency relented.
The incident reflects the tension between federal officials and the press at a time when the media's credibility is under assault, in part because the public believes journalists rely too heavily on anonymous sources in reporting and writing articles about Washington.
Although most briefings at federal agencies are on the record, "on background" sessions remain common -- even when reporters (occasionally) protest, and even when taxpayer-paid experts are merely speaking about their work.
The demand for anonymity by officials leaves journalists grappling with an unpleasant trade-off: use the information and risk alienating readers with more unnamed sources, or leave it out and risk having a less informative article that fails to match those done by competing news organizations.
Briefings by government officials cover a wide range of topics, including explanations of foreign policy and trade agreements, analyses of legislation and gabbing about agency programs. The sessions give rise to the ubiquitous "senior administration official" and "senior [fill in agency name] official" who appear in scores of reports from Washington every week. Some have the feel of theater of the absurd.
In August 2005, a State Department official giving a briefing at the White House on North Korea was asked by reporters why he insisted on not being identified. Because, the official explained in a remark included in the White House transcript, "the story isn't what Mike Kozak is saying." (A Google search would quickly turn up a Michael G. Kozak serving as acting assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.)
Another time, a high-ranking Pentagon official traveling in Europe gave a briefing and refused even to be linked to the Defense Department, insisting that he be labeled a senior "administration" official. But it was well known that the official was abroad, so when the articles appeared with a European dateline, it was not much of a secret who had been talking.
Many Reasons for Secrecy
Agencies cite any number of reasons for keeping names out of the press: allowing lower-level officials to be quoted might steal the spotlight from the Cabinet secretary or other high-ranking official; the briefers are policy wonks who are uncomfortable talking to reporters; the agency is involved in an issue, but in a supporting role; the officials are there to provide context or technical explanations as a courtesy, not to be the face of an agency.
"The vast majority of the Justice Department's briefings are on the record with the only exceptions being briefings that require the department's attorneys to explain highly technical and complex legal issues that require wordy responses not conducive for reporters to use on the record anyway," Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, wrote in an e-mail response to questions. He added that most of those briefings "take place after a DOJ official has already spoken on the record."
The background briefing is even more prevalent on Capitol Hill, where aides routinely refuse to be quoted so their bosses, the politicians who run for election, can get the ink and attention.