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May 3, 2007

NY Times won't party with the stars, but what about those anonymous briefings?

Posted by David Postman at 10:41 AM

I was heartened to read this week that the paper of record had decided it would stop participating in those glitzy D.C. political dinners the White House Correspondents Association and others hold where reporters hob nob with politicos and celebrities of all stripes. From the New York Observer:

"I'd say our distaste for these events has been cumulative," wrote executive editor Bill Keller in an e-mail to The Observer. "There was no one thing. Or maybe everybody has his or her own cringe-making moment. For me personally, the tipping point may have been watching Karl Rove on YouTube, doing a rap routine with reporters at the TV correspondents' dinner."

I am not a D.C. reporter and am not invited to these events. To say I'd boycott them is like saying that if awarded the Nobel Peace Prize I would not go to pick it up. (And the Pulitzers have become way too political, haven't they? Who'd want one of those?)

N.Y. Times D.C. bureau chief Dean Baquet is right to tell his people to mothball the tuxedos.

"I think we need to start sending a signal to the public that journalists and the people we cover have a polite but adversarial relationship," said Mr. Baquet of the D.C. events. "We shouldn't do anything that goes against that right now."

But Peter Baker, the Washington Post's excellent White House correspondent, has an even better idea for how reporters can build credibility. He told the Observer:

"I have more of a problem with government institutions holding briefings with 40 reporters on background. That's what we should take a stand on."

Baker's right. They should take a stand on that. Again, I'm not in that mix and I know that D.C. reporters say those background briefings are the only way they can get certain information. But a lot of what is given to reporters in these briefings is not worth the constant quoting of unnamed senior administration officials.

The background briefings reached the height of absurdity in February on Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to the Middle East. From the New York Times coverage:

Vice President Dick Cheney, thinly veiled as a "senior administration official," told reporters on his plane on Tuesday that it was not correct that he "went in to beat up on" the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for failing to confront Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"That's not the way I work," said Mr. Cheney, violating the first rule of conducting a background interview: never refer to yourself in the first person, when it makes it obvious who is talking.

It was so silly that reporters asked the White House if they could tell readers that the unnamed briefer was Cheney. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked if he could get the ground rules changed after the fact. It seemed the obvious thing to do since most news agencies had found ways to say it was Cheney. The exchange from the February press availability is a classic:

Q: Tony, what's the upshot on your talks on the senior administration official transcript? MR. SNOW: I have spoken with the Vice President's office, and the ground rules that were laid out are going to remain in effect. (Laughter.)

Terry.

Q: Why?

Q: Why?

MR. SNOW: Well, I will direct that to them. They said that the opinion is that everybody on the plane had agreed to ground rules, and they were not inclined to change them.

Q: But didn't the Vice President change them in his comments?

MR. SNOW: I don't think so. I mean —

Q: — when he identified himself?

MR. SNOW: Well, again, I will not comment on a senior administration official briefing. I will simply tell you that that is the opinion of the Vice President's office. And for further — if you wish to go back and get them to referee it, you may do so.

Q: While we're on this — can I just continue? Can you explain —

MR. SNOW: Please. This is riveting.

Q: — on the topic of senior administration officials, why — explain why that device is ever used, and why the public isn't entitled to know who's talking when the people they pay them do what they're paid to do?

MR. SNOW: Well, as you know, sometimes, for instance, when we have senior administration officials who will brief in this room, it is important for matters of confidentiality, in terms of — they're able to be more open with you, as senior administration officials, and also it denies people an opportunity perhaps to — in any event, I'm not going to get — look, I'm not going to get myself stuck in the endless sort of spin cycle of trying to deal with rules on senior administration officials. If you would like those briefings to cease, we could probably make that happen, but I think you would be poorer for it, and we would, too.

You've been around this town long enough to know, Ken, that there are times when it is deemed appropriate to do so. And people do participate in those, as you did. So, I mean, it was a question that may have been posed at the time, but apparently no objection — the objection was not made at that time and venue.

Maybe it's time to start making more strenuous objections. And just as the N.Y. Times is walking away from glitzy D.C. dinners, so, too, could reporters decline invitations to background briefings. If you read, for example, what Cheney said on his Middle East trip, there was very little if anything said that was worth granting the vice president the cloak of anonymity. As is often the case, the briefing was self-congratulatory and lacked the candor one would hope for in exchange for hiding the briefer's identity. Couldn't we have lived without this?

"I would describe my sessions both in Pakistan and Afghanistan as very productive," the unnamed official said.

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