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Washington Post responds to blast from White House

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At today’s White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest expressed some displeasure with The Washington Post. Asked about a story in The Post asserting that the White House had specific warnings about the ongoing border crisis involving unaccompanied minors, Earnest ripped, “I’d first point out that you’re asking about a story that’s based entirely on anonymous sources, so that should be reflected in the record.”

Headlined “Obama aides were warned of brewing border crisis,” the story — under the bylines of David Nakamura, Jerry Markon and Manuel Roig-Franzia — pointed to a 41-page report from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) that “raised alarms about the federal government’s capacity to manage a situation that was expected to grow worse.”

The first individual quoted in the piece isn’t a “senior administration official” or a “former administration official” or “someone with knowledge of the White House’s thinking” or even “a source who spoke on condition of anonymity out of pure cowardice.” It is a fully named man:

Federal officials viewed the situation as a “local problem,” said Victor Manjarrez Jr., a former Border Patrol station chief who led the UTEP study. The research, conducted last year, was funded by the Department of Homeland Security and published in March. A broader crisis was “not on anyone’s radar,” Manjarrez added, even though “it was pretty clear this number of kids was going to be the new baseline.”

And sure, there’s some anonymous sourcing in there too, for example:

“There were warning signs, operational folks raising red flags to high levels in terms of this being a potential issue,” said one former senior federal law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal operations.

When a reporter noted to Earnest that the piece rested on both anonymous and on-the-record sourcing, the press secretary hit back: “I’m not saying there aren’t people quoted on the record in the story. There are people quoted on the record in the story. Cecilia Muñoz from the White House is quoted in the story. But the lede of that story is — is hooked entirely to anonymous sources. That’s just — that’s the fact,” said Earnest.

Taking a generous interpretation of “lede,” the Erik Wemple Blog hereby drops the first three paragraphs of the story:

Nearly a year before President Obama declared a humanitarian crisis on the border, a team of experts arrived at the Fort Brown patrol station in Brownsville, Tex., and discovered a makeshift transportation depot for a deluge of foreign children.
Thirty Border Patrol agents were assigned in August 2013 to drive the children to off-site showers, wash their clothes and make them sandwiches. As soon as those children were placed in temporary shelters, more arrived. An average of 66 were apprehended each day on the border and more than 24,000 cycled through Texas patrol stations in 2013. In a 41-page report to the Department of Homeland Security, the team from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) raised alarms about the federal government’s capacity to manage a situation that was expected to grow worse.
The researchers’ observations were among the warning signs conveyed to the Obama administration over the past two years as a surge of Central American minors has crossed into south Texas illegally. More than 57,000 have entered the United States this year, swamping federal resources and catching the government unprepared.

Judge for yourself: Is a lede that’s based on a study with a link to its contents based on anonymous sources? Cameron Barr, national editor for The Post, takes issue with Earnest’s characterization:

Josh Earnest says that that we gave greater weight in our story to “anonymous outside voices,” as opposed to “on the record sources from the White House,” but the criticism doesn’t make sense. The lead anecdote is on the record; the first quote comes from a named former Border Patrol official. His quote is closely followed by lengthy quotes from domestic policy adviser Cecilia Muñoz. One of the most prominent outside voices in the piece is that of Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, and she is of course quoted by name.

As to the story’s use of anonymous sourcing, Barr notes that The Post is “sometimes compelled to rely on background sources with knowledge of internal deliberations – that is one of the best means available to hold the administration and other powerful institutions to account. We press sources to speak for the record whenever possible, but they are often unwilling to risk their livelihoods in order to make their views known.”

In the course of debate over sourcing, Earnest remarked that The Post “wasn’t here to defend themselves. They didn’t show up today.”

Barr on that: “As to our chair being empty today – we staff the briefing very consistently. On the rare occasion when we are not there, as was the case today, we cover the briefing remotely.”

In light of Earnest’s words, the New York Times’s Peter Baker tweeted:

Hypocrisy proven? That, too, is a judgment call. Earnest in no way denied that White House officials feed information to the media on an anonymous basis; he merely argued that such information is less trustworthy than the on-the-record stuff that Earnest and others, including Muñoz, regularly dish out. Given such an endorsement of quotes with names attached, Earnest was asked whether he’d commit to placing more background briefings on the record. He replied:

Well, I — what I will commit to is a case-by-case evaluation of — of the background or the ground rules of each of these kinds of calls and a commitment to an open dialogue with you about the ground rules that will serve your interests and the White House interests the best.

That should nicely cement the status quo. What Earnest knows so well is that competitive Beltway reporters will continue participating in those accountability-defying background briefings, even though the White House press secretary is on record as questioning their utility. No need to change course here.

And if this tiff feels stale, it is.