The Washington Post

Who broke the White House embargo?

Mike Allen’s Playbook conveys a collegial look each morning at the Washington news scene, crediting competing reporters for good scoops or takes on the day’s events. The crediting extends, too, to instances of alleged journalistic wrongdoing. From this morning’s version:

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS DETAIL THE PLAN on a conference call for reporters last evening (was embargoed for 9 a.m. until, per the White House, WashPost’s Zachary A. Goldfarb broke the embargo by calling around to try to confirm what he had learned on the call -- #not how embargoes work -- White House then lifted embargo)

That sounds pretty uneqivocal.

What does The Washington Post have to say about all this? Innocent, your honor. Gregory Schneider, Goldfarb’s boss, says that even though Goldfarb participated in the conference call, he abided by all rules:

Zach did not break the embargo. The Wall Street Journal came out last night with numbers on the plan, and Zach was told by his editors to call other sources and see if he could confirm the numbers. He got the numbers from other sourcing, not the White House briefing. We take embargoes very seriously and would never violate one.

Huh — now the Wall Street Journal moves into the picture. Did it do something wrong? Schneider doesn’t say it did — only that the Journal came out with “numbers on the plan.”

That’s the truth, says Gerald Seib, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief. His people were working their sources for details on how the administration would pay for its jobs plan. The Journal posted the results of that effort at 5:30 p.m. Sunday under the bylines of Damian Paletta and Carol E. Lee. One bit from the story:

Mr. Obama is expected to call for a steeper reduction in the deficit. To reach that goal, Mr. Obama is expected to call for $300 billion in savings from changes to Medicare and Medicaid, a person familiar with the proposal said. He won’t, though, call for changes to Social Security as a way of reducing the deficit.

Seib & Co. took great care to make sure that such reporting didn’t get confused with an embargo violation. Both of the reporters, says Seib, refrained from participating in the evening conference call that was subjected to the embargo. In any event, their story appeared online before the conference call. “They came up with the information in that story. It was filed well before the White House briefing,” says Seib.

Two inquiries to White House officials have gone unanswered. In their deference, they’ve been busy today, so the Erik Wemple Blog will allow an additional 20 minutes for their response. And Allen says that he knows nothing more than what he put in his Playbook blurb.

No matter what the authorities end up saying, a few points will hold:

1) Embargoes are moronic. It’s one thing to embargo trade with a country, like Cuba. It’s another thing to embargo scoops, especially in Washington. These things can seep through so many e-mail accounts, so many hallway conversations, that it’s pointless to try to make them behave like tractors or five-axis machine tools.

2) What’s gained? The embargo that applied to last night’s White House conference call was reportedly in effect till 9 a.m. today. So all news outlets had a chance to prep their stories ovenight and early in the morning. That schedule stiffed newspapers, since the embargo-lifting came much too late for Monday-morning editions.

If the info had been released for the first time this morning, then all those stories would have come out a couple of hours later. Think civilization would have survived such a delay?

3) Drag on GDP. As with many embargoes, this one appears to have generated bickering about how it was to be observed and who may have violated it. For instance, is it okay to listen in on an embargoed briefing and then call around to confirm that information with other government officials and thus circumvent the embargo? Says Politico White House reporter Julie Mason: “There is a difference of opinion around the briefing room about the propriety of calling around to confirm and report on information from the embargoed briefing. Some say you don’t do that, others say it’s not a big deal.”

Whatever the right answer, that debate amounts to a lot of wasted energy at a time when this country needs to maximize worker productivity.

4) Denial. News organizations never admit to violating a news embargo. It’s always the other paper that did it; or the embargoing authority who didn’t outline the rules properly; or the embargoing authority that broke its own embargo; or some other imperative.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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