By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 10, 2008
An anonymous secondhand quotation from Sen. Barack Obama at a closed House Democratic caucus meeting on July 29 caused an uproar among partisans; it is an excellent example of how the pernicious use of unnamed sources, so pervasive in Washington, can backfire on journalists and sources.
The quote had Obama saying that the huge crowd that heard him speak in Berlin was there not just for him but because "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions." That quote came in an e-mail -- I saw it, and it was quoted accurately -- from notes taken by a source trusted by national political reporter Jonathan Weisman, who has long covered Congress, and Washington Sketch columnist Dana Milbank. They thought it made Obama sound full of himself.
Weisman was on a plane, traveling with Obama, and he picked up the e-mail on his BlackBerry about 10:30 p.m. and quickly turned the quote into a late online post on The Trail, The Post's political blog. He also e-mailed Milbank with the quote, a common occurrence among Post reporters, because Weisman knew that it would fit into Milbank's column.
Weisman's post, which appeared only online, said: "In his closed door meeting with House Democrats Tuesday night, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama delivered a real zinger, according to a witness, suggesting that he was beginning to believe his own hype.
"Obama was waxing lyrical about last week's trip to Europe, when he concluded, according to the meeting attendee, 'this is the moment, as Nancy [Pelosi] noted, that the world is waiting for.' The 200,000 souls who thronged to his speech in Berlin came not just for him, he told the enthralled audience of congressional representatives. 'I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions,' he said, according to the source."
Readers and partisans -- about 160 -- said the quote was taken out of context or misinterpreted. Their anger was mainly focused on Milbank, who used the quote as part of a sharply written critique of Obama as his party's "presumptuous nominee."
There was no tape and no transcript of Obama's talk, but the quote came from someone who told me that the quote didn't reflect arrogance. Here's where it gets tricky for me; I dislike most anonymous quotes, including this one. I figured out who the source probably was and confirmed my suspicion by talking with him, but no journalist should ever reveal another's source except in the gravest of circumstances.
Neither Weisman nor Milbank called the source. Weisman considered the source more or less official and didn't use his name, even though the source didn't ask for anonymity in the e-mail. Weisman said he has "an understanding going back years that he is giving me privileged information from closed meetings; it is by definition on background. With someone you interact with constantly, there just aren't the formalities of sourcing on every conversation and e-mail." Milbank called the source "unimpeachable. When he gives you a quote you can take it to the bank. You don't need to go around verifying it with others."
The source said he often tells reporters what happens in closed meetings and expects anonymity. He sent an identical e-mail to several other reporters and talked to several more; the others didn't see the quote as damaging.
By the next morning, partisan blogs, Obama fans and House aides were disputing the quotation, and Weisman updated his Trail post online, saying that House leadership aides pushed back against interpretations of this comment as self-aggrandizing, saying that Obama "was actually trying to deflect attention from himself." One aide said the "full quote" was: "It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign -- that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol." But there's no tape to verify that, either, and Post editors refused to publish a correction.
Milbank's column was undoubtedly a sharp stick in Obama's eye, giving examples of what Milbank thought was Obama acting as if he were already president. Readers had other complaints, including that Milbank had mistakenly said Obama was sharing views on micromanagement with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown; the remarks were made to opposition leader David Cameron. That error was the subject of a correction.
Readers were also ticked off that Milbank laughed off complainers during his online chat July 31. He dubbed himself the "Whine Enthusiast," ranking complaints or "whines" from readers. Milbank said he chose to answer some nasty attacks with humor.
Some readers don't know what to make of Milbank and his prominent perch on Page A3. They confuse the Sketch with a feature story. Milbank straddles the line between wry observation and pointed commentary; he has a quiver of bipartisan, equal-opportunity arrows. The Sketch is popular with many readers and controversial with others, and I usually hear from people whose ox has been gored. Washingtonpost.com rightly labels Washington Sketch as opinion.
Several lessons can be learned here. For reporters: Anonymous quotes should be used sparingly; this one wasn't worth it. If you weren't there, be careful about judging the context. Treat readers well; we need them.
Lessons for sources: Stand up and be named. Be sure reporters understand the context if they weren't there. Lesson for Milbank's editors: Label his column commentary. Lesson for the Obama campaign: Let the press in when your candidate speaks to a large gathering of elected officials.
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.