Offering Anonymity Too Easily to Sources
‘In the past few weeks reporters have called, and the first thing out of their mouth is, “You want to go off the record?”’
Mike McCurry (President Clinton’s press secretary): I want to speak some truths here. I’ve had probably thousands of conversations with reporters in 25 years as a press secretary, and I’d say 80 percent of the time I am offered anonymity and background rather than asking for it. I rarely have to ask for it, and I don’t ask for it, because I prefer to keep on the record as often as I can. If you’re going to get on a hobbyhorse about this you better be very careful in how you’re going about it. First, I’d teach your reporters that they shouldn’t offer background, and they should only get background when they really need it. Sometimes you do need it. I made a list of reasons I think sources would want to go on background and would need background to deal with you. Sometimes, genuinely, they believe in the public’s right to know, and they want to get more information out to the public. When you’ve got a White House that’s very stringent in the way in which officials can talk to the press, the only way in which you can engage in the conversation is to be granted some anonymity. So you better figure out how you’re going to protect that as you clamor for everybody going on the record. Second, if you want to provide any kind of nuance beyond the talking points that exist, you have to be able to flesh things out sometimes and put a little bit of context in the picture. That’s very important.
I’ll give you an example. I was a very strong advocate of doing most of our briefings on the record. But there are times when you just can’t do that. Middle East ambassador Dennis Ross taught me that he couldn’t brief on the record, because if he briefs on the record then he is speaking as an official of the United States government, and that diplomatically has much different meaning than a senior administration official who is speaking. So you better preserve some rights so that the government can function as governments need to do when they’re conducting diplomacy. Lastly, we need to separate out moments of real drama at the White House, in which there are times in which a White House does need to come out and provide additional information, from what is more routine. If you focus your efforts on the routine briefings and say: “Look, we’re never going to detract from the words of the President. It will help us to identify and know who these individuals are who are speaking and makes the information coming from government more authentic. And when you see a sub-Cabinet quoted who’s an expert on a subject, I don’t believe that has ever taken away from the ability of the administration to articulate its side of the story.” If you can help the White House understand that, you might make some progress.
But at the heart of it, going back to the assertion vs. verification, you’ve got to get back into the hard-news business, reporting facts to the American people. In the face of the accelerated news cycle, the blizzard of information, the competitiveness stories have moved so much over the last 25 years to analysis. The front page of The New York Times is so very different from 20 years ago in the number of facts vs. interpretive analysis. And I think that’s a change in the culture of journalism that really has nothing to do with evil people in the government trying to be secretive.
Tom Blanton (director, National Security Archive): The culture of secrecy is so strong, and there are so many interests pushing for it. What I’ve heard today is that there is a spectrum of secrecy on sources: some of it’s necessary to protect whistleblowers, and some of it is really indefensible, which are the regular routine briefings that government officials give and the press by colluding robs the public of knowing who’s saying what. It’s in the middle that you’ve got the toughest job. The policies people are talking about are heading in the right direction, but I would even suggest a further step—an obligation of the media to actually report about the process. I would love to have seen in the story about the Wolfowitz nomination to head the World Bank something about what the campaign is like to get Wolfowitz approved. Who’s putting out the talking points? Are there copies of talking points you can get and publish? Who is being sent down to brief? Which White House counsel lawyers are coming down to talk about the Executive Order on Secrecy in Presidential Records? Who’s really responsible? C-SPAN has become the most credible journalism outlet because it shows us the process. The way news is defined today in Washington, you don’t show the process, and you need to show more of the process.
Pete Weitzel (coordinator of the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government): There clearly has been an increase in secrecy in the government, and the question we are wrestling with is to what extent are journalists complicit in that process. To what extent do we contribute to it, allow it to continue, and perpetuate it in some way? What kind of a dialogue can we begin among ourselves that might change this? We might not be able to reach a formal agreement of some kind, but can we agree that we need to elevate our standards? Can we take some of these best practices and spread them more broadly through our newsrooms and enforce them in our newsrooms and create a standard that journalists who are involved in the coverage can live with? Part of the problem is that we’re looking at the short term, not looking at the long term. We’re taking a very bottom line to today’s story approach to it, rather than saying, “What is the long-term good for our own industry, our own profession? What is the long-term good for our own readers and our audience? How do we work toward that in a way that still allows us to do our jobs every day?” It’s a very difficult problem, but part of it is saying, “We’ve got to set higher standards for ourselves if we believe that we are headed in the wrong direction.”
Lucy Dalglish (executive director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press): There is no doubt we would have an easier time convincing judges, members of the public, and members of Congress about the need to protect anonymous sources if there were fewer of them to protect. It has run amok. I got a kick out of what Mike McCurry said, because he’s right. In the past few weeks reporters have called, and the first thing out of their mouth is, “You want to go off the record?” In one week I got probably half a dozen phone calls from very prominent reporters saying, “I want to ask you off the record, has Bob Novak been subpoenaed?” “Well, I don’t know.” “Well, you can be off the record.” “No, I’m on the record. I don’t know.” It was kind of startling, actually.
But we are fighting right now to protect these sources and to protect these journalists. We’re fighting very hard. As media lawyers, we don’t make the judgments. We kind of clean up afterwards. We can give advice. We can say, “You really shouldn’t promise this,” and we can make recommendations, but we are always out there cleaning up the aftermath. At the Reporters Committee, one of the first things I learned when I took over was that we don’t really do ethics. That’s not to say every legal problem stems from an ethical problem, but the point is that somebody has to be available to use the aw in ways to protect the flow of information to the public. What media lawyers have been striving to do for the last several months is to convince the journalism community, the political community, and judges that this is not about journalists’ rights to have special privileges. This is all about maintaining a mechanism so that, in certain circumstances, information can continue to flow to the public.
Jane Kirtley (director, Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota): Maybe it’s because I don’t live here in Washington, D.C. anymore, but I find this discussion a little quaint, and let me tell you why. Other media out there, the bloggers of the world, would be laughing, because they are delighted to be the recipients of leaks. And they are delighted to promote an agenda. In fact, many of the general public would say, “Why shouldn’t the Bush administration have an agenda?” So to the extent that we fail to address what’s really pernicious about this and emphasize only the thought that secrecy per se is bad, I think we are losing our audience, and we are losing the competition with those in this new media who do not have the standards that we traditionally have.
Jack Shafer (editor at large, Slate): I think more newspapers should take the USA Today pledge. I did a Nexis dump of the coverage of the President’s European tour and charted the number of times each one of what I consider the top six dailies cited a senior administration official. The L.A. Times finished first, or last depending on how you look at it, with seven such stories. The New York Times was second with five, The Washington Post three, Chicago Tribune two, The Boston Globe one, USA Today zero. And I read these stories, and coming away from it I thought that the USA Today’s coverage was at least as good as any of the other papers’ coverage. It’s not as though they missed an important aspect of the story because they didn’t quote such stirring statements as, “We are hopeful, but until we know exactly what the Egyptian government is embracing, it is too early to declare that it is a major change.” There is no information content there, yet the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times and the L.A. Times are all carrying these anonymous quotations. So I’d really steer us away from, “Woe, woe. Pitiful journalists, so put upon, so pushed around by these briefers,” and say “No, reporters, this is a great way for reporters to fill numerous column inches.”
Geneva Overholser: Susan Tifft, do you have any sense of whether this matters to the public?
Susan Tifft (professor, Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University): The public knows very little about all the things we are talking about today. Despite the cheerful poll results about how the public is perfectly O.K. with some of our practices, I am always kind of astounded when I talk with members of the younger generation about what they know and don’t know about the press. My students are actually astounded to learn that the Freedom of Information Act is not just for the press—that it is, in fact, for the public. That disconnect is something that we’ve got to fix. We talked about modeling behavior and about the Bush administration and the trickle-down effect to the state level having to do with open records and so on. But there is a modeling behavior going on as well about distrusting the press. We have, of course, helped that along, to a certain extent, ourselves. But what’s happened with the trickle-down effect has been that the public doesn’t trust us. They’ve taken their cues from the top, and we’ve really got to make a much better case.
Alex Jones (director, Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy at Harvard University): Secrecy and the effective control of information, in terms of keeping it out of the media, is just one part of a much larger and more pernicious process of taking the principles and talents of very sophisticated public relations and using it in all kinds of ways. Video news releases (VRN), for example, are a perfect modeling image for what has happened over time to the principles of public relations, which began in a self-serving way. Public relations people have been the handmaidens, to a certain extent, of the media. Now they are increasingly becoming entwined with what we do report and what we don’t report. And secrecy is a part of that on the not-reporting side. The power of public relations, as it is infused into the news report taken as a whole, is a gigantic story that the media have simply turned away from. Many news organizations have interests in terms of television and in terms of the distribution of VNR’s and things like that. And now the President rejects the idea that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is saying that VNR’s being used to drop into news reports to look like serious news reports are propagandistic. Though the GAO says they are propaganda, the Justice Department has said they are not. I have heard very little screaming and crying and complaint. It seems to me this is a lot more important than whether someone is off the record or on the record as far as The Washington Post is concerned.
Tom Curley (president and CEO, The Associated Press): Where is the sense of outrage? How does it get kindled or rekindled? A quick example—there are 550 people being held at Guantanamo Bay; 50 are in maximum security, 500 are not in maximum security. The government has said that none of them has intelligence value. There are two processes to determine their standing. We filed a FOIA request, and we’ve gotten nowhere. We’ve covered this and yet our stories virtually have gotten no play. This is an important issue. The stakes are high. The world superpower is under a spotlight here. There have been known abuses. What do we do to get people’s attention?
Andy Alexander (Cox Newspapers, Washington bureau chief, Freedom of Information chair, American Society of Newspaper Editors): We need to do a better job of identifying the specific people in the government who have made those decisions—not the agency, but the individual—not simply to rat them out, but to try to get them to explain why. That’s one way of engaging the public. In a broader sense, we really have a responsibility. It’s frightening to say that people look to us for setting the standards. When you’re on the inside of this, it can be pretty frightening to watch in this town, but we need to do a better job on all levels of setting the standard here to prevent this culture from creeping throughout America.
Jack Nelson (former Washington bureau chief, Los Angeles Times): The media pay relatively little attention to secrecy. If you want to know about secrecy in this country, you don’t read it in the daily paper very often. You read it on the Internet when you go to see the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site or the Federation of American Scientists and their secrecy project. They put out three or four instances every week of more secrecy in this administration. We just don’t cover it in the main media. Tom, you say there is no sense of outrage. That’s one reason there’s no sense of outrage—we don’t cover the story.
McCurry: While you’re all so concerned about secrecy, can I make an appeal for the information that’s in plain view? It’s amusing to hear you all shocked, shocked that there are video news releases going out from our government. Well, our government employs hundreds of people, spends millions of dollars trying to get you interested in the work the government does on behalf of the people who pay for it. And you don’t cover it. If Charlie Peters were here, he would scold all of you for the decline in coverage of government agencies and the work of government over the last 20 years, as you go chase after stories that are hidden somewhere in the secret closets of the White House and other agencies. Why don’t you try covering the things that the government really does? And report on things that work, instead of assuming that everything is waste, fraud and abuse, which is, by the way, what most Americans think. I think they’d be pleasantly surprised and find it newsworthy that sometimes government does what it is supposed to do.
Nelson: Mike, you are not defending what this administration is doing in sending out these videos that do not look like they come from the government and look like they are done by a reporter and that some television stations are running without any acknowledgment that that’s the source. It’s government propaganda.
McCurry: The news about video news releases on the front page of The New York Times was that the local news stations were putting these things on the air unattributed, not that they were being developed and produced by government. I know and assume the agencies in the Clinton administration made B-roll material available. We tried to give people access to interesting things that we think government has done to get them to do stories on it. I think that is perfectly legitimate. Now it is up to all of you on your side of the relationship to define how you use the material.
Nelson: Are you saying that in the Clinton administration it was not labeled that it came from the government?
McCurry: I don’t know the answer to that. I’ll bet you we did. I know that we did video news releases, I know we did satellite feeds of B-roll material to try to get local stations to pay attention to this stuff. It’s public information, and we have a responsibility to get it out there in some fashion that it will get used. And if they did this to try to get someone to put it on the air so someone might know what these various agencies are doing, it’s because all of you aren’t covering it yourselves.
Overholser: Tom Rosenstiel, you get one last word.
Tom Rosenstiel (director, Project for Excellence in Journalism): The notion of sort of covering secrecy is fine, but I think you need to balance that attempt against two realities. One is the press’s credibility problem and the defensiveness and sort of loss of confidence that exists among news organizations, and the second issue is our complicity, our collaboration in the culture of secrecy. Your attempts to cover this as if it’s entirely the government are going to be undermined if we don’t acknowledge that role, too.