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How to End Those White House Backgrounders

By Andy Alexander

Post media writer Howard Kurtz had a good piece today about those insidious “senior administration official” background briefings that the Obama White House has been employing, despite the president’s pledge to be more transparent.

Obama's is just the latest administration to use the anonymous briefing as a means of message control. The technique involves a Cabinet secretary, agency head or top government adviser who will talk to the press corps, but only on the condition that he or she be identified as a “senior administration official.” It affords the background briefer deniability. At the same time, it ensures that most on-the-record comments and images come out of the White House under controlled circumstances. Often the same senior official will appear later on television saying much the same thing -- but when he or she can’t get peppered with questions from as many knowledgeable White House reporters.

Reporters complain, but the press corps seems incapable of group action. When he was a reporter for the old Knight Ridder Washington bureau, Ron Hutcheson tried to lead a walk-out of reporters in protest of a White House “senior administration official” backgrounder in 2004. No one followed.

Given White House intransigence, it may be time to dust off an idea offered by Slate media critic Jack Shafer. At a National Press Club symposium on anonymous sources, he suggested that correspondents slip him the name of any anonymous “senior administration official” who briefs on background. Shafer, in turn, would out the briefer by posting his or her identity on his Press Box column. White House reporters could then quote the “senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.” But their stories could authoritatively add: “Slate’s Press Box blog identified the briefer as. . .”

“No one has taken me up on it,” Shafer said today when I asked about his offer. Perhaps White House reporters are being “noble” by truly abiding by the guidelines that preclude identifying the anonymous briefer, he said.

But, Shafer noted, “I’m not bound by this agreement.” He said his offer still stands for anyone who wants to e-mail him at: slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

By Andy Alexander  | May 27, 2009; 6:12 PM ET
 
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