You know you’ve been reporting in Washington too long when you’re able to pick up “signals” being transmitted from nameless people at the White House, you quickly decode these signals, and — in spite of myriad examples of reporters having been done wrong by such “signals” in the past — you still report them.

The New York Times’ Richard W. Stevenson and David Stout put their own aluminum foil antennae and secret decoder rings to use in a piece today about John Roberts.

The first “signal” Stevenson and Stout picked up came from a “senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of personnel issues” and making the highly sensitive observation that “Mr. Bush is considering Supreme Court candidates ‘from all walks of life.’” For readers who think perhaps that Bush has butchers, bakers and used car salesmen in mind, the intrepid duo explain that the nameless official is “signaling that the administration was sensitive to the pressure to nominate a woman or a member of a minority to replace Justice O’Connor.”

Stevenson and Stout also received other signals. To wit: “White House officials signaled that there would not be an announcement this week and that they saw no real possibility of having a nominee for that seat confirmed by the start of the new [Supreme Court] term.” (No decoding required).

Next, the two Timesmen go on to list some potential nominees on whom “speculation immediately centered.” Now that’s a signal we can decode. Stevenson and Stout are signaling that they — mere reporters — play no role in this “speculation” when, as we’ve pointed out countless times, they most certainly do.

L.C.B.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.