Over the holiday weekend, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus turned the Sunday shows into his personal Poynter Seminar on Ethical Sourcing in Journalism. Riled by articles in the New York Times — about alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence — and the Wall Street Journal — about the intel community allegedly abridging Trump briefings — that relied on unnamed sources, Priebus ripped away in a discussion with “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson: “I think that the media should stop with this unnamed source stuff,” Priebus told Dickerson. “Put names on a piece of paper and print it. If people aren’t willing to put their name next to a quote, then the quote shouldn’t be listed.”
That sounded pretty definitive: Down with the sleazy, unaccountable, lying anonymous source.
In an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, however, Priebus expanded on the Trump White House Doctrine of Anonymity. “All this is just total garbage, unsourced stuff,” said Priebus about the well-traveled stories. “Listen, there is nothing wrong with background. Reporters need background information. We need to communicate with reporters and give reporters context,” he said. When the stakes are high, however, there’s a different standard: “If you’re going to come out with this story that says Russian spies are talking to your campaign, my God — I mean, you actually — I think that you should in some cases or in most cases actually have a named source,” said Priebus.
Just this morning, the administration showed its fealty to this set of standards. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) held a “background” conference call with beat reporters regarding implementation guidance for the White House’s new and aggressive approach to immigration enforcement. Rules for the call allowed reporters to identify the agency for which the officials worked, but not their names. “The officials also made clear that nothing in the directives would change the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which provides work permits and deportation protection for the young people commonly referred to as Dreamers,” reads the write-up in the New York Times.
Gillian Christensen, acting press secretary for DHS, declined to comment on the background briefing and Priebus’s policy on anonymous sources.
The background briefing, of course, is an institution in Beltway governance. Anytime you see “White House officials” or “senior administration officials” connected to comments that advance the White House agenda, chances are good that you’re reading the result of a background briefing. The setup allows government employees to spout off on policy without having to fear repercussions for stray or erroneous comments. More than a decade ago, then-New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent called background briefings “an affront to journalistic integrity and an insult to the citizenry.” Perhaps that assessment understates the matter at hand. There’s no sane rationale for this tradition, other than to give highly ranked government employees a level of comfort and un-accountability when delivering remarks.
Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “I would say broadly that reporters always prefer to have briefings on the record.” And when asked about Priebus’s approach, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer emailed, “In full context – he said he understood the need for the use of them and didn’t have a problem but felt like if you going to making serious accusation (as was done) you need at least one on the record person.”
That is indeed what Priebus said. It’s a lovely aspirational standard, as well. All editors should push their reporters to find on-the-record sources for their scoops. Not only is the practice good for readers, it’s good for the company’s libel insurance policy. Yet come on: We just got through an administration famous for its leak-investigation enthusiasm. We’re only a month into the Trump administration, too, and already we’ve seen zeal for pursuing leakers, whose prospective outing filled a great deal of the conversation last week after revelations dribbled out about former national security adviser Michael Flynn. In contradistinction to background-briefing sources, leakers of bona-fide secrets have legitimate reasons for seeking anonymity.
Even Priebus declined to tell Wallace what source had told him that the New York Times story was baseless. “I can’t tell you that,” said Priebus.
The lesson here? An outsider White House is no match for survivalist Washington conventions.