Wednesday, May 04, 2005


Editor and Publisher reports Washington bureau chiefs have launched a new effort to stop off-the-record and background-only White House press briefings with a campaign aimed at getting fellow D.C. journalists to demand that more briefings be on the record. "We'd like to make a more concerted effort among the media during the month of May to raise objections as soon as background briefings are scheduled by any government official, whether at the White House, other executive agencies or the Hill," the e-mail said, in part. "Please ask your reporters to raise objections beforehand in hopes of convincing the official to go public -- ask them to explain why the briefing has to be on background. If that doesn't work, object again at the top of the briefing -- at least those objections will be part of the transcript. The broadcast networks will also press for briefings to be open to camera and sound."

Jay Rosen blogged Conspicuous for going unmentioned was one of the most effective ways the press can "raise objections" to background briefings: don't go to them. Just quit. So here is my Letter to Romenesko on it, published May 3rd. It's a good way to reach the professional community, which checks in at Romenesko's place throughout the day.

Garrett M. Graff blogged A curious question to ask in all of this: Considering that the bureau chief signatories met on Friday and 40 bureau chiefs all received this email yesterday, does not one of them think that such an effort was worthy of a story? Is this issue really so obscure that it should be reported only in a trade publication? If reporters are really as (rightly) outraged about the practice as they say they are, shouldn't they perhaps use their own soapboxes?

James Joyner blogged I'm all for it but this is a non-starter. Well, that's not quite right. This is an effort than seems to start every couple of years. There is constant clamor to get rid of background briefs because they practically beg for disgruntled folks with an axe to grind to come forward. Yet they persist. Why? Because, as with any embargo, some will break it. Journalism is a business that thrives on being first with a story. This could last for a week or two but I guarantee you that the moment a juicy enough tidbit is available only on background, it'll be in a paper near you.

Editor and Publisher reports Scott McClellan, President Bush's press secretary, said Tuesday evening that he would be glad to end the use of background-only briefings -- if White House reporters would stop using anonymous sources in their reporting.

"I told them upfront that I would be the first to sign on if we could get an end to the use of anonymous sources in the media," McClellan told E&P, referring to a meeting he had with a half-dozen Washington bureau chiefs last week. He said that "people in the heartland" feel that "anonymous sources use them to hide behind efforts to generate negative publicity."

Jay Rosen blogged Meanwhile, I contend that the words "force them to..." are, esssentially, false. (In that White House reporting remains a wholly voluntary practice.) Strupp--who has been captured by his sources on this story--is participating in that falsehood. He does it by accepting the bureau chiefs' fiction that unless everyone quits the "background" farce no one can. Therefore the only issue is whether a general boycott will be called. That too is false, but Strupp believes it.

No one is forcing the press to attend any briefings, on the record or off the record. And I suspect if the press began to report things truthfully, and not slant their news reporting to be as biased as their editorial pages, then I suspect the White House would be willing to provide more on the record AND off the record briefings.

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