Press Box

Outing the Anonymice!

Let’s put an end to Washington background briefings.

Yesterday, National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack did his best Ed McMahon impression as he introduced a “senior administration official” to a gaggle of reporters gathered in New York City for a Bush administration “background briefing.” Verbatim from the official transcript:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the briefing you’ve all been waiting for—all day long. (Laughter and applause.) We have a senior administration official here who is going to be—has a few words to say about the President’s meetings with Prime Minister Singh of India and Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan.

Under background briefing rules, information can be used but must be attributed to a vague outline, such as a “senior administration official,” and not the individual speaking. This is a Washington journalistic institution—and a silly charade. Reporters who assemble at background briefings know who the speaker is, their editors know who the speaker is, and so does anyone who bothers to pick up a phone and make a few calls.

Government officials insist that background briefings are not a silly charade. They maintain that government policy is constructed of words and that any words that approximate policy should be spoken only by the brass (the president and Cabinet secretaries) or the brass’s designated spokesmen. If you allow every undersecretary, director, and office clerk to give his version of the official line, their logic goes, chaos will ensue, creating one international incident after another.

This gets it exactly backward. The brass rarely speak because it is they who are most likely to create an international incident by botching the subtleties of a policy worked out largely by faceless underlings. This embarrassing reality must be disguised at all costs by forcing those underlings to speak only “on background,” especially when the topic has some importance. Far from being loose cannons, the underlings are so terrified of getting in trouble with their bosses by saying anything that extends beyond the decided policy that they often purge from their background briefings any larger meaning. (For a prime example of talking a lot and saying nothing, see the transcript of yesterday’s briefing.)

Back to yesterday’s presentation: The first words out of the briefer’s mouth were, “Hi. I’m the senior administration official.” His last came 30 minutes later, when he closed his stand-up performance with, “You’ve been a wonderful audience!” I’m kidding. His last comment recorded in the transcript is, “Thanks.”

In between, the unnamed senior administration official dropped more clues about his identity than a Hardy Boys villain. At one point he volunteered, “I used to live in Japan.” At another he responded to a question that he couldn’t handle with, “That’s not really my brief. I’m the Asia director.”

The Asia director? According to a background briefing conducted by a man I can refer to only as “Mr. Google,” the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia is Michael J. Green.

There is an argument, expressed recently by New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent in his June 13 column, that background briefings can be justified in some national security and foreign affairs reporting. But background briefings should be the exception, not the rule, Okrent concludes, as he castigates rampant anonymous sourcing in American journalism as “dishonest” and a “cynical game.” In a June 27 follow-up column, he called upon the major dailies and the Associated Press to show some backbone and stop covering anonymous briefings by government officials and political figures. Alas, his proposal died on the page because 1) too many publications prefer having news fed to them in a sippy cup; and 2) most editors are probably convinced (rightly) that if they accept Okrent’s challenge, their rivals will betray them. May I suggest a simpler option, one that I’ve suggested before and that achieves the Times public editor’s noble ends without requiring the cooperation of the top dailies? If reporters agree with Okrent that background briefings are “an affront to journalistic integrity and an insult to the citizenry” (as I do), they could abolish the practice in a fortnight. All they need do is drop me an e-mail every time an under-sub-deputy-director of flimflam convenes a background briefing. I’ll provide the creative destruction by publishing the anonymice’s names in this column, thereby putting the briefings on the record.******Washington press corps, I await your e-mail at Michael J. Green should feel free to e-mail me, too, if he’s got an anonymouse besides himself to out. That address again, Our servers are waiting for your mail. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)