Battle Over Background Briefings

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, May 4, 2005; 12:24 PM

Washington journalists and the White House are suddenly engaged in a robust debate over the Bush Administration's frequent use of official but anonymous "background briefings."

A group of Washington bureau chiefs met with Press Secretary Scott McClellan on Friday to urge him to curtail the practice. And on Monday, they sent an e-mail to other Washington editors suggesting that, whenever such briefings are announced, reporters should "raise objections beforehand in hopes of convincing the official to go public."

Background briefings are generally used by the White House to flesh out policy proposals that the president only makes in broad strokes. They also are a frequent feature of foreign trips, used to telegraph what Bush intends to accomplish in meetings with foreign leaders and then to provide a "read out" from those meetings.

Sometimes the anonymous briefers speak before a large audience of reporters; sometimes it's on a conference call.

But the anonymity does not typically translate to frankness. The anonymous briefings tend to be as full of spin and empty of straight answers as the ones that are on the record. (Judge for yourself; the White House doesn't post a lot of the background briefing transcripts, but some of them can be found here .)

Practically speaking, all that the cloak of anonymity does is hinder accountability and undermine journalistic credibility.

Joe Strupp broke the story on the Editor & Publisher Web site yesterday: "Washington bureau chiefs have launched a new effort to stop off-the-record and background-only White House press briefings with a campaign aimed at getting fellow D.C. journalists to demand that more briefings be on the record.

"Among other efforts, they pressed the demand with White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on Friday. 'We tried to make the point that readers are sick to death of unnamed sources,' said Ron Hutcheson, a White House correspondent for Knight Ridder. 'Scott listened and he said he would chew on it for a few weeks, but everybody felt like he would give it consideration.'

Nat Ives writes in the New York Times: "Mr. McClellan, who called Friday's discussion constructive, said he had raised the bureau chiefs' concerns within the White House. 'I'm looking at ways to move forward on the issues raised,' he said. . . .

"The new discussions over background briefings are being driven largely by pressure from readers and news editors to reduce the use of anonymous sources.

" 'All of us have bosses who are increasingly disturbed by the use of anonymous sources,' said Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today, who attended the meeting on Friday and attached her name to the e-mail message on Monday. 'It's one reason people say they don't believe what they read in the newspapers.' "

When McClellan returned his call, Strupp had a follow up on his own story.

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