Press Box

Background Briefing Watch

The “unmasking” of White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig.

Last Thursday, Jan. 22, the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News capitalized on a flub by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to “out” the identity of a background briefer.

As the Morning News’ Todd J. Gillman wrote, the White House press corps assembled at noon Thursday to attend a “background briefing,” the topic being President Barack Obama’s executive orders that will close secret prisons and Guantanamo. (see the transcript.) Under the standard rules, no cameras were allowed and comments could be attributed only to senior administration officials.

Shortly after the backgrounder, press secretary Gibbs convened an on-the-record session with the White House press corps and television cameras, and taking questions about the executive orders, he referred to “Greg” three times. “Intriguing,” wrote Gillman in italic. Who is this mysterious ‘Greg,’ folks watching on TV might wonder.

Times reporter Jeff Zeleny was less coy about Greg’s identity. Seeing as Gibbs had invoked the first name repeatedly in a way that “all but identified the mysterious briefer,” Zeleny wrote that the man Gibbs was talking about was the provider of the earlier backgrounder, White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig.

Chafing at all the background subterfuge, Zeleny wrote: “Does an administration that has pledged to be the most open and transparent one ever really need to have routine briefings be on background, by an official who can’t be named?”

The quick answer to Zeleny’s question is the same as the long answer. No. Neither journalism nor readers are served by the background briefing conventions. Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank wrote smartly about the evils of White House background briefing in an April 6, 2004, piece (alas, not on the Web).

Attacking the Bush administration specifically, Milbank wrote:

The notion of speaking “on background” has been around for decades, allowing reporters to get senior administration officials to speak candidly, and sometimes critically, about their boss’s policies. But somewhere along the line, administrations learned to turn background backward. The White House now organizes authorized background briefings almost weekly, in which officials are cloaked in anonymity. It appears from these sessions that the anonymity is not to protect officials who say something negative—but to shield them from embarrassment for sounding like cheerleaders.

Rampant backgrounder abuse at the Bush White House caused Washington bureau chiefs to petition press secretary Scott McClellan in 2005, begging him to end them. As Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp reported, the chiefs griped about one energy backgrounder given by conference call just before a Bush energy speech. Reporters were denied the identity of the deputy press secretary doing the talking. The chiefs also groaned about the frequency with which officials would speak to print reporters in background briefings and then go on the record for broadcasters.

Officials at the CIA and State Department often defend backgrounders as a way to explain covert operations or complex events coherently for reporters without committing a diplomatic faux pas. But those are a separate case. When White House officials justify backgrounders as necessary because the device wicks the personality or baggage of the giver out of the briefing, leaving only the pure statement of government policy behind, they’re not even fooling themselves. Nobody can play Jedi mind games on their own mind—the speaker always inhabits his own speech. And, besides, anybody who really wants to know the identity of the backgrounder can dig it out. In the case of Greg Craig, his name was in the mass e-mail announcing the briefing sent to the White House press corps. If the White House press corps knows, the press knows, if the press knows, the Hill and lobbyists know.

The only people left in the dark are citizens and readers. Why can’t we trust them with the identities of background briefing? As long as it’s a new administration, why not turn on a few lights?


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