Every so often, a group of handpicked journalists gets the equivalent of a tap on the shoulder from a White House functionary. They’re invited to a background briefing, one of Washington’s most common, and little examined, rituals for the transmission of official spin, talking points and, occasionally, actual news.
For an hour or more, the assembled reporters will listen to and question White House advisers and aides — “senior administration officials” in the inevitable stories that follow — on topics of the officials’ choosing.
All of it will be hush-hush. No TV cameras will roll. No names will be revealed. There will be no direct quotes (hence, the ubiquitous “senior administration officials”) and sometimes no quotes at all. Readers and viewers will never learn exactly who said what. Take our word, or theirs, for it.
Is this any way to report the news?
White House reporters tend to view background briefings as a kind of mixed blessing. While they bristle at the ground rules, they say the briefings occasionally generate useful information that they wouldn’t learn another way. Quoting a senior official without identifying him or her is imperfect, they acknowledge, but better than nothing, which is what reporters get when they ask for on-the-record interviews with frequent briefers such as deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes or U.S. trade representative Michael Froman.
During a July background briefing, for example, senior administration officials — unnamed, of course — made news when they said the administration would oppose a bipartisan effort in Congress to speed up the deportation of undocumented minors from Central America. Background briefings have enabled reporters to report with some confidence about the administration’s take on other issues as well — the Islamic State, the economy, health-care reform, upcoming trips and major speeches.
But too often, reporters say, background briefings are a one-way street that suits the White House’s purposes more than journalists’.
“The briefings vary widely in usefulness,” said Mark Landler, who covers the White House for the New York Times. “Sometimes, I learn a lot. Other times, there’s a lot of spin or repetition of positions that are well known.”
Landler and the Times are part of the golden circle of reporters and news outlets that are regularly sought by White House operatives for background briefings, separate from the rest of the press corps. Earlier administrations used to include a wider group, but President Obama’s press representatives, particularly in his second term, have narrowed the field, showing “more favoritism to the biggest news organizations,” said George Condon, the National Journal’s veteran White House reporter.
This has led to a press room divided between background-briefing haves and have-nots. The news organizations typically invited to the briefings are those whose reporters occupy the first three rows of the seven-row press briefing room: the TV networks, major newspapers such as the Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and wire services such as the Associated Press and Reuters. Sometimes, even third-row occupants — from Politico, the Los Angeles Times and McClatchy newspapers, among others — don’t make the cut, leading to complaints from excluded reporters.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz declined to offer any on-the-record statement about the administration’s background briefing policies, in effect offering no comment about its policy of not commenting. Obama himself has met with reporters for “deep” background briefings on a few occasions. He has also invited liberal as well as conservative pundits, bloggers and opinion writers in for similar sessions.
These meetings are so far off the record that the journalists aren’t supposed to confirm they even took place, let alone report what was said (among other measures, participants agree to check their cell phones at the door). But breaches sometimes occur. Before one such backgrounder in late 2012, MSNBC host Ed Schultz tweeted photos of the White House and mentioned on Twitter that he was “on my way to DC to visit with the President.” White House officials weren’t pleased.
Even when the briefings produce little of immediate value, they’re useful for other reasons, said Glenn Thrush, a senior writer for Politico magazine and a former White House correspondent. Thrush used the sessions as an opportunity to get to know those proverbial senior administration officials. “The most interesting thing is walking out of the room” and chatting with officials in a relaxed fashion, he said.
He also found the frequent “no comments” of briefers to be as valuable as any affirmative statement. “When they shut you down on things,” Thrush said, “you often find out where the story is.”
Reporters say they often ask for the meetings to be on the record, but their requests are denied by White House officials. This leaves journalists in a quandary: Accept the terms or leave the room. Almost none have walked out, fearing that they might miss something newsworthy.
The administration’s not-for-direct-quotation edict is understandable in certain instances, said National Journal’s Condon, such as before or after a diplomatic summit, when an inflammatory report could jeopardize sensitive negotiations or pre-empt the president’s official statements.
On other occasions, however, it’s “usually just silly,” he said. Condon recalls a press aide telling him in a briefing two years ago, “ ‘Off the record, I have nothing for you on that.’ ”
But if journalists stood up to their government sources, background briefings could become more transparent and government officials could be held to account, said Ron Fournier, a former White House correspondent for the Associated Press who is now a columnist at the National Journal.
“My bottom line is that the ground rules should always be set by the reporter, not the source,” he said. “It should be the reporter’s discretion, not a government decision. . . . We have the right to blow them up and make them speak for the record.”
Reporters should realize that they can insist — either as a group or individually — that all “background” comments be on the record, Fournier said. If it’s not on the record, they should leave the room. The reason that doesn’t happen, he said, is that reporters fear the “social discomfort” of walking out, and because they worry that a competitor will accept the government’s terms and stay behind.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, he recalled, Democratic nominee John Kerry walked to the back of his plane to chat with reporters, insisting that his comments were off the record, meaning they could not be quoted. Fournier told Kerry that he would be taking notes and would file a story “before the plane lands.”
The ultimatum left Kerry with a choice, Fournier later wrote: “He could chat with us on my terms (a win-win) or walk away. He stormed back to his cabin, and I got back to writing an analysis of his flailing campaign.”
The lesson, he said, is, “Stop moaning about how you’re being played and play the game harder.”