Keeping Officials on the Record
President Obama’s promise of transparency aside, a culture of anonymity still exists in official Washington. There is perhaps no worse example than public officials insisting their remarks be off-the-record when they address large audiences.
Now, some media groups are pushing back. They are in the early stages of asking news industry associations and Washington media outlets to sign on to a draft letter that urges Congress, federal agencies and the Obama administration to end the practice.
The letter, which they ultimately plan to send to press secretaries, implores them to “address a common source of friction between reporters and the public officials they cover – off-the-record comments at public meetings."
The letter continues: “This practice primarily involves Congressional and federal agency staff members, who frequently offer insight into policy deliberations at widely attended events such as conferences, but either refuse to allow reporters to use the information or insist that they cannot be named in news stories.”
The effort was initiated by BNA (officially the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.), which produces an array of print and online publications covering everything from tax issues to labor law. BNA is working with the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of press groups -- the Newspaper Association of America, the Associated Press, the American Society of News Editors and others -- to push for open government. (Full disclosure: In the past, as a board member of ASNE, I have worked with SGI.)
“We cover a lot of conferences as part of our in-depth work on different subjects, and we kept running into this,” said Toby McIntosh, BNA’s Director of Editorial Quality Review. He added that the frequency of officials going off-the-record at large public gatherings became “frustrating” and “we thought maybe we should try a more institutional approach to address it.”
After getting a core group of groups to sign on, they hope to expand the list by the end of the month. The Washington Post will be asked to sign on, he said.
Then, McIntosh said, the letter will sent on to press secretaries, in the hope of convincing them to stop the practice. It might also lead to “follow-up meetings” to discuss the problem, he said.
“Standing in front of 300 people and declaring your words to be ‘off-the-record’ is frustrating for reporters, but it’s also silly,” said Rick Blum, SGI’s coordinator. “With Twitter, blogs and old-style e-mail, the lobbyists, bloggers and other opinion-shapers in the audience will repeat your words a thousand different ways before you step off the podium. But a reporter who respects the traditional rules of the road can’t report what you say to a broader audience.”
Blum also urged conference organizers to not invite reporters to cover conferences where public officials impose restrictions. "Be sure your speakers agree to talk on-the-record,” he said.
“If you speak before a large audience in an open meeting or when press are invited, don’t jump off-the-record,” he said. “We hope to raise awareness that reporters are frustrated with the unpredictable and unnecessary jump off-the-record.”
The letter comes as media groups continue to push presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs to end so-called “senior administration official” briefings in which high-level officials talk to groups of reporters but insist they not be identified. This tactic has been used often by administrations to shape their message. A corollary is that when high-level officials make statements on the record and before the television cameras, questions from reporters are prohibited or limited.
The White House Correspondents' Association voiced objections to this practice early in the Obama presidency. A small number of Washington bureau chiefs met with Gibbs in June and again this month to discuss the problem.
“I think the White House has made a significant effort to listen to and accommodate our concerns,” said USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page. "We've seen real changes take place at the White House on this front.”
She said most White House briefings are now being held on the record, adding: “I give Robert Gibbs a lot of credit for taking these steps.”
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