Background: Routine off-the-record briefings are a creature of Washington, and while it may be naïve to think that they’ll ever fully disappear, there’s little to recommend the practice. What reason is there—other than to avoid accountability for what is being said—that the administration can’t let reporters tell the public which “senior administration official” is describing the administration’s position on, say, detainee policy, or stimulus progress, or how the president arrived at his decision on Afghanistan? (Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary from 2003 to 2006 said the practice didn’t make much sense to him, and decided not to conduct them.) Anonymity has a place in Washington reporting: when someone could suffer repercussions for divulging information that their boss would rather not have the public know, for example. But when your anonymous briefing has been arranged by the White House press shop, it’s hard to see how it’s justifiable. Meanwhile, journalists desperate for whatever information they can get are in little position to decline a conduit of information that other colleagues will agree to use.

Obama’s actions: While there was some movement among journalists in Washington in the twilight of the Bush administration to raise protests about routine off-the-record briefings, journalists made a serious stand at the dawn of the Obama administration, which had promised a new era of transparency and openness. After receiving letters and complaints from the White House Correspondents Association and a group of D.C. bureau chiefs, top White House communications officials met with journalists to discuss the issue. Print journalists were irked that the anonymous “senior administration officials” were, after conducting their background briefings, turning around and mouthing the same talking points on television. While many journalists acknowledge that the briefings have been trimmed and the most egregious abuses eliminated, the tool is still being used. When the administration announced its acquisition of Illinois prison facility to house former Guantanamo detainees, the anonymous briefers even declined to identify themselves to the reporters on the call.

Grade: F

Other resources:

Background briefings irk W.H. press, Politico, Michael Calderone, May 8, 2009.
Fighting to Win the Sotomayor Spin War, Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, May 27, 2009.

The Columbia Journalism Review wishes to thank The Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute for supporting this project.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.