New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent banged his head against the wall two weeks ago with a column in which he challenged the editors of the Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press to “jointly agree not to cover group briefings conducted by government officials and other political figures who refuse to allow their names to be used.”
I have great sympathy for the Okrent challenge, having head-banged about “anonymice” for almost two decades. But even if the Washington press corps accepted the challenge, the arrangement wouldn’t hold. The temptation to drop out of the agreement in pursuit of a nibblet of information would be too great for most publications. If the agreement did hold, the anonymice would ship their background comments to the next group of newspapers down the status ladder—the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, the Boston Globe, the Washington Times, etc.—eventually ungluing the cartel. Ultimately, the proliferation of official background sources is less an issue of professional ethics than it is economics: Important Washington sources in possession of newsworthy information are scarce. Reporters are in surplus. That imbalance allows many official sources to name the terms of engagement to their advantage. Think of it as the result of too many dollars chasing too few goods, and you get the picture.
But this economic equation balances differently outside the Beltway, as reporters in Omaha, Neb., proved last week. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz visited the area, where he observed a military ceremony and gave a July 9 speech sponsored by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Wolfowitz’s office invited several regional reporters for a post-speech discussion with the deputy secretary. Among the small group of reporters attending the session were Scott Canon of the Kansas City Star, William Petroski of the Des Moines Register, Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal Star, Henry J. Cordes of the Omaha World-Herald, and The New Yorker’s Peter Boyer, who was traveling with Wolfowitz.
Wolfowitz’s public affairs officer, Bill Turenne, began by asking that Wolfowitz’s comments be attributed to a “senior Defense Department official.” The Kansas City Star’sCanon took immediate issue with these ground rules. “I was less heroic than you might imagine,” he says in a telephone interview.
Canon politely explained to Wolfowitz and Turenne that the conversation would be of no professional value to him if he couldn’t name Wolfowitz as the source of the remarks. There just wouldn’t be much use at his paper for such blind quotery. “My complaint was less about the practice in general than that it would be a waste of [Wolfowitz’s] time.”
Petroski, who wrote a short account of the incident for the Register, told the deputy secretary that going on background was not the way local reporters did their business. Canon advanced the point that no reader was going to be fooled by the protective coloration of “a senior Defense Department official” in a news story. Wolfowitz was easily the only senior Defense Department official in the city, the state, and maybe the region that day.
The tiny showdown was over before it started, with Wolfowitz cordially agreeing to stay on the record unless he felt a pressing need to say something on background—which he did once or twice to no consequence. (Turenne, Wolfowitz’s public affairs officer, did not return a call requesting comment for this story.)
The moral here isn’t that reporters can eliminate the scourge of background and anonymous sourcing with a wave of the hand. Omaha ain’t Washington. But it does illustrate 1) how background sourcing has become the default setting for many government sources and their handlers—they request it even when they don’t need it!; 2) that the smaller the group of reporters, the greater their leverage in getting information on the record; and 3) a reporter never knows what resistance to authority will get him unless he resists.
Thanks to Susan Hegland and Corine Hegland, who alerted me to the Petroski article. Send e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)