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Anonymous Obama briefers rankle press

May 27, 2009|James Rainey

Most historical materials note that the Roosevelt Room in the White House has no windows. So it makes sense that the Obama administration chose the location for a somewhat opaque briefing on the selection of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

While the president introduced the appellate judge before the bright lights and a bank of cameras, his handlers insisted an hour later on continuing an unfortunate practice of past administrations -- revealing details of presidential decisions on the hush-hush.

That meant inviting a couple of dozen reporters into the windowless Roosevelt Room, where the president's men promised enlightenment, but only to members of the media who promised not to identify the two "senior administration officials" giving the briefing.

The 20 minutes of "background" Q&A that ensued helped the media fill in a few details of the choice -- that Sotomayor met for seven hours last week with administration officials, for example, and that Obama pegged her early on as the preferred choice -- but revealed no particularly sensitive or novel information.

So why would a White House that promised more transparency insist on anonymity for the two officials who spoke to the press?

The conventional answer (also offered by the Clinton and Bush White Houses) is that staffers should be anonymous and remain in the background, so as not to distract from the president and the day's news, in this case Obama's choice of the first Latina nominee for the Supremes.

A number of White House correspondents have been bridling under this kind of arrangement, arguing that Team Obama should speak publicly and for the record when talking about the public's business.

I won't argue that democracy as we know it suffered a grievous blow because of one instance of anonymity. (A couple of journalists told me the briefers were David Axelrod, senior advisor to the president, and Ron Klain, Vice President Biden's chief of staff and a former Supreme Court clerk. That information was delivered anonymously, of course. This stuff can be contagious.)

But I do think Team Obama has continued a distasteful and potentially damaging practice. In some situations, anonymity makes sense, typically when someone's job can be threatened for revealing important truths.

In Washington, these agreements too often get struck out of expediency or habit.

Who's to say future anonymous briefings won't be granted only to those who prove more malleable or less skeptical of the administration?

How can the public fully evaluate the information it's receiving if it doesn't know who's behind it?

Do most people even know what to make of the attribution "high-ranking administration official"?

From speaking to some White House correspondents, it sounds as if that could be anyone from Axelrod to a press aide to a deputy secretary at one of myriad federal agencies.

It's nothing new for an incoming administration, particularly a popular one, to be aggressive about presenting information the way it wants. But the media has an obligation not to play along.

"It's good to complain now, even about a relatively harmless incident, because it may make the administration more careful about a case when it really matters," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "You want the president to have a healthy respect for the press that is partly grounded in fear."

Washington reporters have had a love-hate relationship for decades with anonymous briefings, particularly those offered more selectively than Tuesday's. Journalists can feel plugged in, and look smart, when they get information others don't have.

The White House gains from such arrangements, getting coverage from the initial "exclusive" it offered a reporter or two (often relatively uncritical accounts, because the journalists guard their scoop by minimizing contact with critics, who might have another view), followed by a second day of stories by the bulk of news outlets.

I asked an administration budget spokesman Tuesday about the appearance that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal got special briefings on Obama's budget proposal. He said he didn't recall any such briefings and suggested that "dogged reporting" sometimes produced exclusives.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and chronicler of the Washington press for decades, laughed when I told him about that conversation.

"Yes, every now and then there is a dogged reporter," Hess said. "But if you feed a dogged reporter a dog biscuit, you will see how easily he will eat it. And how much he will appreciate it."

Even before Tuesday, reporters had protested quietly about that Obama's White House should more routinely put officials on the record. Those arguments don't seem to be gaining much traction.

When I asked about the latest no-names briefing, Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki's response seemed to suggest there is a certain hypocrisy afoot.

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