White House officials are willing to speak on the record at length about internal politics. They’re willing to do likewise about Syria policy. And, of course, they’re always happy to speak on any basis — on the record, background, whatever — about how poorly the media handles their work.
For weeks, the New York Times has been sniffing around a more sensitive story, for which it has had far more difficulty securing feedback from the White House. Hear it from New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis: “White House officials did not respond to several weeks’ worth of inquiries about the Easter Egg Roll.” Among the questions left wide open is how many people were likely to attend, not to mention this one: “It is unclear, for instance, whether Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, will reprise his appearance in a bunny suit for the event, as he did a decade ago when George W. Bush was president and Mr. Spicer was an aide in the Office of the United States Trade Representative.”
Stephanie Grisham, communications director for first lady Melania Trump, did give the New York Times a narrow statement about the event, which takes place next Monday amid harried preparations. “Plans for the Easter Egg Roll are well underway, and the White House looks forward to hosting it,” said Grisham, who also played down any suggestion that this year’s version of the event, a long White House tradition, wouldn’t be as big as previous iterations.
Here’s where Davis had to do some sleuthing:
The evidence points to a quickly thrown-together affair that people close to the planning said would probably draw about 20,000 people — substantially smaller than last year’s Easter Egg Roll, which drew 37,000 — and be staffed by 200 volunteers, one-fifth of the usual number. These people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the plans for the Easter Egg Roll, which are still evolving just a week before the event.
Aha — Beltway anonymity meets hard-boiled journalism.
Yet the New York Times is one of those places where, when you’re writing about kids with wooden spoons whacking eggs around the springtime grass, you can’t just scramble an anonymous source into the mix without going through channels. Pursuant to a policy adopted by the newspaper last year, a “desk head” must approve any use of anonymous sources in a pending article. (An even higher level of review is required for articles that “depend primarily” on anonymous sources).
At the time the policy was handed down, then-New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that while rules are fine, enforcement is better. So, a test: Did the anonymous ovoid sources get a good inspection? “I got an email from the copy desk asking if I approved the anonymous sources in the story, and I said yes,” says Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, in a short chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. She said it was the first time she has approved anonymous sources for a story about Easter eggs.