It’s hard out here for a reporter, believe you me. The democratization of media has been accompanied by political campaigns and press offices that are more defensive than a bartender at a Bill Cosby party. The result has been a move toward ever-increasing message control, and in particular, an over-reliance on “background” briefings and attributions. To hear reporters tell it this week, though, you would think that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign invented completely unnecessary anonymity for barely-useful boilerplate.
First, there was CNBC’s John Harwood with his cranky reporting on a Clinton campaign briefing last week that came with the added stipulation that none of the anonymous campaign officials be quoted directly, and with the added bonus of campaign officials who had little to say that was worth quoting. Ordinarily, a “background briefing” means you can quote the briefers directly, but must use the agreed-upon attribution. The briefing Harwood described doesn’t seem like it was worth attending except to complain about it. which makes you wonder why anyone would go to it. Stick a pin in that for now.
Harwood was joined in criticism of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s background briefings by other media outlets, including The New York Times and the Nashua Telegraph, who each took shots at the canned nature of the sessions. These are all legitimate criticisms that are also quite common to political reporting.
It’s not common to all political reporting, but there is a good reason why someone like Rick Santorum won’t be holding background briefings with no-quote rules, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign is: no reporters would show up to a Santorum table-scraps briefing, but they’ll literally flock to anything Hillary-related. As WaPo’s Erik Wemple ably summed it up, “Media organizations are at the wrong end of a power dynamic vis-a-vis the Clinton campaign: They number in the hundreds — thousands, perhaps — and they’re all vying for whatever meal scraps they can scrounge up.”
The alternative is to boycott background briefings, or as Ron Fournier suggests, tell these press shops you’ll ignore ground rules unless you agree to them case-by-case, which means you won’t be invited to any of them.
Or you can do what The New York Times‘ Adam Nagourney did this week, and just burn them. Nagourney got a background email from Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman Jesse Ferguson, and decided to tweet about it, explaining to Erik Wemple that the email contained “anodyne stuff” that didn’t really need anonymous attribution, which Wemple illustrated this way:
Those contents were pedestrian and, in some cases, Wikipedia-style pedestrian. For example:
Hillary Clinton grew up in Illinois, and her career spent working on behalf of children and families has taken her from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., Arkansas to New York. But it was the voters of New York who elected her to serve as their first female senator.
Now let’s attribute that snippet in accordance with the rules of the e-mail:
Hillary Clinton grew up in Illinois, said a Clinton campaign official in an e-mail sent to reporters, and her career spent working on behalf of children and families has taken her from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., Arkansas to New York. But it was the voters of New York who elected her to serve as their first female senator, noted the campaign official.
That does sound kind of ridiculous, but if you look at the entire email, it’s pretty clear that the background attribution applied mainly to the details of Hillary’s launch speech, and the rest of the background literally was background. In fact, attributing it to Jesse Ferguson would arguably have weakened its news value and been less accurate, since this memo was clearly the work of the entire Clinton press shop, and not just its Deputy National Press Secretary.
I’m the first one to say that background and off-the-record are overused and abused, but what gets me here is the wide-eyed innocence routine. Nagourney acts like he’s never been on a press email blast before, or that it is generally understood that when you attend one of these briefings, or ask to be on an email list, you are agreeing to the ground rules unless they are subsequently modified.
I’d buy that if Nagourney, or any of the people complaining about that June 1 email from Jesse Ferguson, had bothered to complain about the portion of that email that was deemed “off the record.” Nobody agreed in advance to keep that part of the email off the record, but even Nagourney adhered to it because it dealt with media logistics, and everyone understands that those sorts of details are off the record as a matter of course.
The same sort of understanding applies to a background email, until it’s convenient to ignore it.
The fact is that political press operations will dish out whatever the market will bear, and even when you’ve got a well-organized group like the White House Correspondents’ Association trying to leverage a little bit more, it’s tough to squeeze anything out of a giant stone. In a high demand free-for-all like the Clinton campaign coverage, reporters should feel lucky they’re not forced to compete in dance-offs to get into a briefing. Ron Fournier’s right that the only way background briefings will stop is if reporters stop going to them, which will happen when Hell freezes over. But I bet you could get some dynamite on-the-record stuff over at Pataki headquarters.