A bit of a feud broke out at Monday’s White House daily briefing when Press Secretary Josh Earnest criticized The Washington Post‘s use of anonymous sources, and reporters responded by pointing out the White House’s use of anonymously-sourced background briefings. Beltway media types are now crying “hypocrisy,” but what they’re doing is comparing senior administration apples to oranges familiar with the situation.
Earnest’s hackles were clearly raised when Real Clear Politics’ Alexis Simendinger quoted a Washington Post report entitled “Obama aides were warned of brewing border crisis,” and asked him to respond to it.
“Well, Alexis, I’d first point out that you’re asking about a story that’s based entirely on anonymous sources,” Earnest said. “So that should be reflected in the record.”
He then went on to explain the steps the administration was taking before the influx of unaccompanied children became a huge national story, and the funding increases it has sought each year to deal with it.
Ironically, the article that Earnest took such exception with actually does note, quite extensively, steps like those that he described, and then some.
Later in the briefing, McClatchy’s Anita Kumar pressed Earnest on the use of anonymous sources, and made the observation that the Post story contains both named and unnamed sources.
“There are people quoted on the record in the story, Cecilia Muñoz from the White House is quoted in the story,” Earnest said, adding “But the lead of that story is hooked entirely to anonymous sources.”
Kumar then pointed out that “you criticize anonymous sources, but we have anonymous sources from you all every day. I think we have a call today. I mean, how can you criticize that when that’s what you basically give us every day, except for the briefing?”
That’s when Earnest took a turn for the pissy, interjecting, “Except for the briefing. Except for the fact I’ve been standing here for an hour answering all of your questions,” and pointing out repeatedly that Post hadn’t bothered to “show up to defend themselves,” which would have been an interesting use for the Brady Briefing Room. What ensued was an interesting, spirited debate about the utility of background briefings, and the relative credibility of anonymous sourcing.
Now, on the substance, Earnest is wrong. The Post piece didn’t rely entirely on anonymous quotes for its “hook,” as illustrated by Erik Wemple in his equally pissy response to the White House. He demonstrated this, however, by dropping all of the anonymous quotes from the piece, and showing that there was little substantive difference, which also illustrates the fact that the anonymous quotes were completely unnecessary. So why use them? Because without the fresh quotes, what they had was essentially a research piece. The quotes gave it a “news hook” and support for the sexed-up headline. Without them, a fair reading of the piece would be that the administration prepared for an influx, just not such a huge one, and maybe, in hindsight, they should have adjusted their political calculations.
Anonymous sourcing is often necessary for journalists to do their jobs, to serve the public, but it is badly overused, as illustrated by the fact that Dylan Byers’ Politico once ran an article about White House reporters complaining about background briefings in which several white House reporters insisted on being quoted on background. More problematic than that is the weak attribution often used in such stories, as in WaPo‘s use of “others familiar with internal discussions,” a meaningless attribution that could well be referencing participants in a séance.
On the substance, the reporters are also correct that background briefings are overused and silly, but precisely because they are so very different from reporters using anonymous sources. Critics likeDylan Byers and The New York Times‘ Peter Baker are accusing the White House of hypocrisy based on a completely fraudulent comparison that relies on an ignorance of the complexities of sourcing.
Let me break it down for you.
If I get Joe Schmoe from the Office of Management and Budget to tell me something newsworthy, on the record, the White House can simply turn around and say, “Mr. Schmoe was talking out of his ass,” and probably fire him. That’s why Joe would probably request anonymity, which would protect him from firing, but would also, as Earnest points out, place limits on the weight I would give his statements. If Joe turns out to be full of shit, that’s basically all on me. I can’t then turn around and say, “But, but that’s what Joe Shmoe told me!”
Now, if Joe Schmoe is participating in a background briefing, which is an official, on-the-record event in which only the names of the participants are off the record, whatever he says gets attributed to a “senior White House official,” which means that the White House owns his words. They can’t go back and say, “We never said that,” or, “We were misquoted,” because there are a hundred audio recordings of that event, recordings which, incidentally, include the names of those background sources. A source at a background briefing cannot possibly burn you. If anything, the weight given to Joe Schmoe’s statements is greater in the context of a background briefing, not weaker.
Gratuitous anonymous sourcing and arbitrary background briefings are not even close to the same thing, but the solution to them is. Reporters often accept the worst sort of anonymous sourcing, the source with an axe to grind, because they know if they don’t, that source will shop elsewhere, just as reporters attend White House background briefings because if they don’t, all of their competitors will. If everyone held out for appropriate attribution, we would get it. Unfortunately, our media environment isn’t set up to reward such a practice, and neither is our audience.