Column: Off and on the record
WASHINGTON — Let us now praise anonymous sources.
Josh Earnest — has there ever been a more perfectly named White House spokesman? — was a bit off in his timing. He lit into The Washington Post — and noted, more than once, that its reporters were absent from the briefing — for its alleged overuse of unnamed sources.
This critique came as the White House was emailing reporters about a background briefing that very afternoon. Featuring, yes, unnamed senior administration officials, to speak on the oh-so-sensitive subject of job training. Goose, meet gander, as several reporters at the briefing pointed out.
Except, not exactly. It’s more like the White House is from Mars, reporters are from Venus. Each has needs the other doesn’t entirely get. Both should do their best to put everything, and everyone, on the record. Yet both have legitimate grounds, at times, to deviate from this standard, although they do so for entirely different reasons, which helps explains the press secretary/reporter disconnect.
Earnest’s real beef with a Post story wasn’t about the unnamed messengers but about the unwelcome message: that the administration had failed to respond forcefully enough, early enough, to the flood of child migrants.
Asked about the report, Earnest went all journalism school: “You’re asking about a story that’s based entirely on anonymous sources. So that should be reflected in the record.”
Let the record reflect, as Earnest later acknowledged, that the story, and it was a powerful one, featured, by name, a former Border Patrol station chief, an immigration rights advocate and a member of Congress — along with official documents and figures. It prominently and extensively quoted Cecilia Munoz, the White House domestic policy adviser. Its opening paragraphs about which Earnest complained were based on a public report.
The story also quoted a “former senior federal law enforcement official” about “warning signs” unheeded, and “a person involved in the planning” who asserted that the administration showed a “general lack of interest” in the unaccompanied minors and focused more on passing comprehensive immigration reform.Earnest eventually back-tracked on whether the story was unsourced, but argued that officials willing to take the reputational risk of having their names attached — himself at the podium, for instance — should be given more credence. “Greater weight should be granted to those who are willing to put a face and a name with specific claims,” Earnest advised.
Here is the essence of the disconnect. The White House equates anonymous sources (except their own, of course) with cowardice. The media equate them with truth-telling, or at least a closer approximation of the truth than they are able to get from on-the-record aides spouting the official line.
Earnest is correct that a source wiling to be named deserves more credence, but this is, sadly, not the way Washington works. Candor is a rare enough commodity that to demand it be paired with bravery is asking too much. Reporters should push sources to go on the record, but, in the end, they face a trade-off. Relying solely on named sources would present a less complete, less accurate picture of reality to readers, even if readers are deprived of knowing the names of those quoted.
The interests of the White House — this or any other — in keeping sources unnamed stems from entirely different incentives: promoting the president and minimizing unforced errors.
Thus, the call about which reporters chided Earnest was done on background so as not to pre-empt the official announcement. Every White House wants the focus on the principal, not the aide. This is both understandable and silly. It’s certainly not worth ceding the moral high ground and appearing hypocritical.
The more justifiable use of anonymity is providing greater breathing space for honest discussion. The less administration officials have to worry about every linguistic slip ending up in the next day’s paper, or the next minute’s tweet, the better they can explain their thinking. I participate in a lot of deep background briefings — no direct quotes, but information attributable to senior administration officials — and they’re more valuable than the on-the-record versions.
Speaking of which, Earnest’s snarky references to the Post’s “empty seat.” Going to the White House briefing is more like attending the theater, albeit an interactive, improv performance, than like reporting. A reporter’s time is better spent talking to sources than sitting in an assigned seat. Even if the sources must remain anonymous.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is email@example.com.