Battle Over Background Briefings

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 4, 2005; 12:24 PM

Washington journalists and the White House are suddenly engaged in a robust debate over the Bush Administration's frequent use of official but anonymous "background briefings."

A group of Washington bureau chiefs met with Press Secretary Scott McClellan on Friday to urge him to curtail the practice. And on Monday, they sent an e-mail to other Washington editors suggesting that, whenever such briefings are announced, reporters should "raise objections beforehand in hopes of convincing the official to go public."

Background briefings are generally used by the White House to flesh out policy proposals that the president only makes in broad strokes. They also are a frequent feature of foreign trips, used to telegraph what Bush intends to accomplish in meetings with foreign leaders and then to provide a "read out" from those meetings.

Sometimes the anonymous briefers speak before a large audience of reporters; sometimes it's on a conference call.

But the anonymity does not typically translate to frankness. The anonymous briefings tend to be as full of spin and empty of straight answers as the ones that are on the record. (Judge for yourself; the White House doesn't post a lot of the background briefing transcripts, but some of them can be found here .)

Practically speaking, all that the cloak of anonymity does is hinder accountability and undermine journalistic credibility.

Joe Strupp broke the story on the Editor & Publisher Web site yesterday: "Washington bureau chiefs have launched a new effort to stop off-the-record and background-only White House press briefings with a campaign aimed at getting fellow D.C. journalists to demand that more briefings be on the record.

"Among other efforts, they pressed the demand with White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on Friday. 'We tried to make the point that readers are sick to death of unnamed sources,' said Ron Hutcheson, a White House correspondent for Knight Ridder. 'Scott listened and he said he would chew on it for a few weeks, but everybody felt like he would give it consideration.'

Nat Ives writes in the New York Times: "Mr. McClellan, who called Friday's discussion constructive, said he had raised the bureau chiefs' concerns within the White House. 'I'm looking at ways to move forward on the issues raised,' he said. . . .

"The new discussions over background briefings are being driven largely by pressure from readers and news editors to reduce the use of anonymous sources.

" 'All of us have bosses who are increasingly disturbed by the use of anonymous sources,' said Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today, who attended the meeting on Friday and attached her name to the e-mail message on Monday. 'It's one reason people say they don't believe what they read in the newspapers.' "

When McClellan returned his call, Strupp had a follow up on his own story.

McClellan said "that he would be glad to end the use of background-only briefings -- if White House reporters would stop using anonymous sources in their reporting," Strupp writes.

" 'I told them upfront that I would be the first to sign on if we could get an end to the use of anonymous sources in the media,' McClellan told E&P, referring to a meeting he had with a half-dozen Washington bureau chiefs last week. He said that 'people in the heartland' feel that 'anonymous sources use them to hide behind efforts to generate negative publicity.'. . . .

"He said that background briefings, which often precede a foreign trip or a policy speech, actually help reporters. 'There is a need for [administration officials] to provide background without attribution,' McClellan said, citing a foreign trip as an example. 'You might be providing context of what another country's views are and they might take exception to doing that on the record.' He also pointed out that 'you probably already have on-the-record comments from the secretary of state or national security advisor.' "

Obviously, reporters are sometimes grateful for these anonymous briefings -- when the alternative is getting no information at all. And undoubtedly, reporters are sometimes too quick to grant anonymity to sources, especially if all they're getting in return is a nasty comment or two.

But in suggesting that there is a tit-for-tat relationship between the official anonymous background briefings and reporters' need to sometimes use anonymous sources, McClellan is either betraying a lack of understanding of modern journalism -- or is being deliberately disingenuous.

As I wrote in my March 18 column , after attending a luminary-filled panel discussion on secrecy, not all anonymous sources are created equal.

The unprecedented secrecy with which the Bush administration operates makes it more imperative than ever for reporters to occasionally grant confidentiality to sources who are taking a risk by exposing information that the public has a right to know.

That's a stark contrast from those maddening White House briefings where a senior administration official stands in front of an auditorium full of reporters, says nothing remotely controversial, and yet insists on being cloaked in anonymity.

From the reporters' perspective, there is really no excuse for the latter.

But Is It Enough?

Strupp's story about the bureau chiefs' stand immediately engendered a slew of posts on journalism blogs, most notably in the letters section of Jim Romenesko's media blog. One major theme: That's not enough.

There are, of course, some other ways to fight background briefings. (See that March column of mine.) Reporters could either individually or collectively boycott them. Or they could name the briefers, either in their own news outlets or to any number of willing bloggers.

"Don't go to them. Just quit," writes blogger and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen , who then describes how he thinks it should work:

"PODIUM: Don't forget, background briefing at 11 am, previewing the President's remarks with a nameless deputy press officer

"REPORTER 1: Great, that will give me time to answer my e-mail.

"REPORTER 2: Scott, when does the working part of the day resume?"

In Strupp 's second story, he writes about that possibility:

"Some veteran journalists have suggested that Washington reporters boycott background-only briefings to send a stronger signal. 'Maybe it's time to take another shot at it,' Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of The Washington Post, told E&P. He recalled a failed boycott attempt in the late 1960's, which he says did not work because it did not have unified support. 'There is certainly more interest in it now,' he declared."

Meanwhile, Ask Better Questions?

Martin Schram writes in a column for Scripps Howard News Service that the White House press corps, too enamored of its pre-written questions, failed miserably at Thursday's news conference by not asking Bush more questions about his brand-new Social Security proposal.

"He had promised: 'All Americans born before 1950 will receive the full benefits.' So will those born after 1950 face cuts in their benefits? Even though his staff withheld releasing its Social Security fact sheet until the conference started, Bush expected some tough questions on his plan and was prepared to reveal a few more details."

The one follow-up question -- which, admittedly, Bush ducked -- came from Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder Newspapers. That's the same Hutcheson who, in his role as president of the White House Correspondents' Association, was seated next to Bush two nights later.

"The president told me he appreciated my question -- and that he was surprised that it hadn't been asked until the very last question," Hutcheson told Schram.

The press corps, Schram writes, "undersmarted themselves by failing to think on their seats and on their feet. They failed to press a president who was primed to make even more prime time news."

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, taking your questions about background briefings, Social Security, Saturday night's festivities, whatever. Send me your questions and comments .

Social Security Watch

McClellan promised something new before Bush's Social Security remarks yesterday in Mississippi. But there wasn't much.

Some reporters felt the biggest news came in the gaggle by deputy press secretary Trent Duffy. They interpreted one exchange to mean that Bush is not as wedded to his new "progressive indexing" proposal as he is to private accounts:

"Q Does that mean he's open to other ideas to replace the indexing proposal he just made on Thursday?"

"MR. DUFFY: The President is open to all ideas, as he said. He has put out his proposal on a way to protect the lowest-income workers, but that in the context of the legislative process, he'll welcome other ideas for solutions, and would welcome other ideas to perfect or to make the best system. That's what the President is most interested in, is providing the best solution."

As for Bush, here's the transcript of his remarks. And here's the new stuff:

"[F]irst and foremost, future generations ought to receive benefits equal to or greater than the previous generation. So I think if you've been working all your life, you ought to receive a benefit equal to or greater than the promises that I got. I think that's a fair system. So in other words, that's an important principle for people to listen to.

"Secondly, if you work hard and -- Social Security your entire life, you will not retire into poverty. The current system today, by the way, doesn't say that. The current system says you can work all your life and may end up in poverty. I don't think that's fair. I think people who have worked hard all their life and paying into the Social Security system ought to have a program that makes sure they won't retire into poverty.

"And so, therefore, I believe benefits for lower-income workers should grow faster than benefits for higher-income workers, just to make sure that someone doesn't retire into poverty. You know, you hear all this talk about benefit cuts; we're talking about making sure benefits grow at the rate of inflation -- that's what we're talking about. You've been promised something; it ought to grow at the rate of inflation. Today, if you're an upper-income worker, it grows at the rate of wage growth. What I'm telling people is, is that ought to be applying for younger -- lower-income workers, but not all workers, so that the system can take care of those at the lower income scale. That makes sense to me.

"I hope it makes sense to the United States Congress."

How can a proposal that would ostensibly reduce spending for Social Security by about $3 trillion over 75 years not be a cut? In the absence of more explication from the White House -- on background or otherwise -- some liberal thinkers are deconstructing Bush's proposal. Here's Jason Furman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and economist blogger Brad DeLong writing in Slate.

The Coverage

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times that "the White House signaled that Mr. Bush would be flexible if Congress had other ideas about how to close the projected long-term gap in Social Security's finances, reflecting the reluctance of many members of his own party on Capitol Hill to embrace any plan that could be portrayed as harming the middle class.

"In an indication of how deep that reluctance runs, Mississippi's two Republican senators both suggested after attending Mr. Bush's rally here that they were not yet prepared to embrace the details of the president's approach."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Currently, about 2 million Social Security beneficiaries live in poverty, according to the White House. Here in Mississippi, nearly 20 percent of the population and 22 percent of senior citizens live below the federal poverty line, which is now just over $16,000 a year for a family of three."

Jackie Calmes, John D. McKinnon and Brody Mullins write in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush's proposed Social Security overhaul now boasts two new assets it didn't have a week ago: A solvency plan as Democratic adversaries have demanded and an energized champion in the House with a track record for getting things done."

That's House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas they're writing about. But Heidi Przybyla writes for Bloomberg that Thomas "wants to rescue" Bush's Social Security plan "by loading on even more controversy.

"Thomas is considering a broader legislative package that includes new savings incentives and long-term health-care benefits. The plan, according to people who have discussed it with Thomas in recent days, could be financed by replacing at least part of the Social Security payroll tax with some form of consumption tax."

Foreign or Domestic?

In the morning gaggle, a reporter pointed out to Duffy: "The President has been at a BMW plant in South Carolina. Now he's going to a Nissan plant. He's never been, as far as I know, to GM or Ford. Is there any significance there?"

The White House later issued a statement saying: "The President has hosted domestic automakers on the South Lawn of the White House to promote his hydrogen car initiative, as well as other fuel-efficient vehicles."

Cheney in Georgia

After a few calls, the White House kindly obliged and posted the transcript of Vice President Cheney's Social Security talk in Smyrna, Ga., on Monday. (See yesterday's column for the coverage.)

It's a great read, because Cheney goes into more detail than Bush does -- and because unlike Bush he actually takes questions, albeit from a very friendly audience. (One questioner actually called him "Mr. President.")

Cheney speaks at some length about the proposal Bush endorsed, by lawyer and investment executive Robert C. Pozen (who Cheney mistakenly called an economist.)

"So Pozen's idea is . . . a sliding scale, in effect, at the bottom end -- folks at the lower end of the income levels who are going to be more dependent on Social Security than anybody else, would still get the same adjustment, that is, inflation plus the index to wages, in terms of computing their benefit. But at the upper end of the scale we would adjust only for inflation; there wouldn't be that extra kicker, that extra 1 percent over 30 or 40 years that gives you a significantly higher level of benefit. And then we'd have some sliding combination of both between the upper end and the lower end. . . . "

Here's a good question:

"Q Mr. Vice President, under the private accounts plan, where will the revenue come from to support the current beneficiaries of Social Security?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: . . . One way to think about what we're trying to do here is to bring forward and pay now what is obligated to be paid later on, the funds that would be required, in effect, to set up the private accounts. In other words, we'd have the existing Social Security system out there cranking away as it is today, but we'd go ahead and borrow the money, in effect, to put into those accounts.

"But it's a debt we already owe. And you may think about it. It's like advancing the house payments on your mortgage, that you're going to bring it forward and pay it now instead of paying it later."

Except that you could also think about it as borrowing even more on your house when you're already massively in debt.

Cheney talked about the importance of finding a bipartisan solution. But the overwhelmingly Republican crowd picked up on his comment that "there are a number of members of Congress of the other faith who have said that we don't need to do anything."

"Q Mr. Vice President, thank you for coming to Georgia, and thank you and the President for your leadership in the war on terror. Millions of Americans appreciate that.

"My question is, I watched the press conference the other night with the President, and it seems like when the two of you come up with serious ideas that those from the other faith, in the other party, all they do is demonize and, in many cases, just lie and try to divide the older generation, our grandparents from us, those in our 30s.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I've noticed that. (Laughter.)

"Q And just from -- my question is, what are you going to do from a political nature to stop them from just lying and trying to divide us, and protect those of us who really are depending on you guys saving this and protecting this? It seems like their message to our generation is they just don't care if we get it or not. That's what I hear from those that are constantly criticizing, is they don't care about us. And what's your message to them?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I do think -- I'm trying hard to be nonpartisan in my conduct. . . . "

Finally, Cheney was asked about possible changes to disability coverage, which Bush had previously ruled out.

"[W]e have not at this stage addressed the disability issues. That is, we haven't proposed any change in the disability programs at this point. It may well be that it needs to be addressed or looked at, and that's entirely possible. But what we're proposing so far doesn't relate to, or address those issues at all."

Today's Calendar

Bush holds a "roundtable on Strengthening Social Security" this morning at the 2005 Latino Small Business Economic Conference, then hosts a Cinco de Mayo dinner at the White House.

Luti in the White House

A White House announcement yesterday: "Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Stephen J. Hadley announced today, the appointment of William J. Luti as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Defense Policy and Strategy."

Blogger Laura Rozen writes: "In the continuing saga of the Bush administration's kicking up of its most controversial personnel, Bill Luti, the big boss of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, has been promoted to a White House position."

Thomas E. Ricks profiled Luti in The Washington Post in 2003. He noted that critics described Luti "as a stealthy Svengali of Iraq policy, operating at the center of a network connecting Vice President Cheney, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith -- all people for whom Luti has worked in the past seven years.

"The critics are especially suspicious of his Office of Special Plans, which was created last year. The purposely ambiguous title -- it was an office to work on policy for invading Iraq -- gave rise to speculation that Luti was running a shadowy intelligence operation intended to second-guess the CIA and provide the Pentagon with findings that supported its policies. The office has since been closed."

Luti himself, however, "insists that he is not as influential as some of his critics suspect. 'To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of my power are greatly exaggerated,' he said."

More about Saturday Night

Rebecca Dana and Gabriel Sherman , writing in the New York Observer, have the exhaustive recounting I've seen yet of the parties before and after the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on Saturday.

House Rules

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "The U.S. delegation at Pope John Paul II 's funeral, headed by President Bush, dined one evening at Ambassador Mel Sembler 's residence. Word is that after the meal, Sembler produced a box of fine, but not Cuban, cigars.

"Sembler's wife, Betty, said no smoking in the house but the gentlemen could go out on the veranda.

"One member of the group said: 'But it's the president of the United States.'

"To which Betty Sembler replied: 'But it's my house.'

"Bush said he understood she had the better case and led the group out to the veranda."

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