behind the news

Stories I’d like to see

Obama's unaccountable briefers, pipeline bribery, and economic woes at Yankee Stadium
April 22, 2014

This column, a regular feature, was originally published on

1. Obama’s unaccountable briefers:

Here’s a key paragraph in Saturday’s New York Times report explaining the Obama administration’s decision to delay yet again a decision on the Keystone pipeline:

‘The Nebraska Supreme Court decision could lead to changes in the pipeline route, and it’s important to have that information and better understand that route, because it could have implications for environmental, socioeconomic and cultural impacts of the pipeline,’ a State Department official said Friday in a conference call with reporters that was conducted on the condition that the official not be named.

Why did this official have to remain anonymous? Was he or she providing a national security leak? Was he or she blowing the whistle on some government wrongdoing?

Hardly. In this case the anonymous briefer was offering up a comically far-fetched excuse for kicking the pipeline decision down the road until after the 2014 elections.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Even assuming a state court’s decision on the routing of part of the pipeline could have “environmental, socioeconomic” or even “cultural” impacts — which is a stretch — the State Department could have made its own decision contingent on the state court not throwing any such unlikely curve balls. So you can’t blame the briefer for not wanting his or her name attached to this gibberish, or the Obama administration for not wanting a name and a face out there for follow-up questions.

But you can blame the Obama administration — and the press — for engaging in this exercise in unaccountable government.

There’s a bigger story here that this paragraph illustrates. In my own reporting about healthcare, as well as in my daily reading of news from the White House, I’ve observed a routine insistence by the Obama administration that almost every explanation of its decisions or policies is done in briefings in which officials are not to be quoted by name — and a routine acquiescence by the press to these ground rules. Even notices of briefings or changes in scheduled events are typically sent on a not-for-attribution or even off-the-record basis.

How come? And how come the press accepts it?

One explanation I’ve gotten from one White House aide — who, yes, insisted on anonymity — is that “the president is the story, not any of us.” Really? Who decided that? Does President Barack Obama agree with the selling of a fairy tale of one-person government? If that were true, then why not have the president out there, by name, trying to sell this explanation for the delay of the pipeline decision?

Obviously, it’s instead a way to dodge accountability for decisions or explanations that don’t pan out or that, as in the case of the pipeline decision delay, are laughable in the first place.

It’s time for a story about this governance by anonymity. Am I correct that the unaccountability disease has gotten worse under Obama than previous presidents? What’s the rationale for it? Why does the press play ball?

What would happen if, for example, the State Department press corps had simply refused to participate in that pipeline briefing unless it could name the person who pitched that absurd rationale for the delay and could then keep peppering him or her with follow-ups?

2. Bribery in the pipeline fight?

Before we leave the subject of the new delay in the Keystone decision, consider this additional paragraph in the Times story:

But approving the pipeline before the election could staunch the flow of money from liberal donors and fund-raisers who oppose the project, like Tom Steyer, a California billionaire. Mr. Steyer, who has personally asked Mr. Obama to reject the pipeline, is positioned to play a major role in influencing the midterms: He has pledged to spend $100 million to support candidates who back strong policies to fight climate change.

Try this exercise. Substitute the conservative Koch brothers for Steyer, the liberal who wants to block the pipeline because he believes it will accelerate global warming. And change the text to read that Charles and David Koch have bluntly promised House and Senate Republicans $100 million if they will do everything they can, including threatening a new government shutdown, to get the pipeline approved. But if they don’t do everything the Koch brothers think is necessary, they won’t get the money.

Would the Koch brothers be guilty of attempted bribery? Promising government officials something of value in return for an official act would seem to be the definition of attempted bribery. Or would they simply be exercising their First Amendment rights? Does your view change if you go back to Steyer and his concerns about global warming? In fact, unlike the Koch brothers — who espouse a more general conservative agenda — Steyer’s agenda seems far more targeted and, therefore, arguably more susceptible to the accusation that he is offering money in return for a specific government act.

Despite all the controversy over the mega-contributions of special interests like Steyer or the Koch brothers, I’ve yet to read a good analysis of when First Amendment-protected advocacy, now allowed by the Supreme Court to be backed by big bucks, becomes attempted bribery.

Some sample questions to explore: If Steyer says to a Democrat in a closed meeting that his political action committee will give $100,000 to the politician’s campaign if he or she promises to try to block the pipeline, is that an attempted bribe? (It does probably violate the restrictions against PACs coordinating directly with candidates.) But if he says publicly that his PAC will give $100,000 to any candidate who pledges to try to block the pipeline, does his offer become protected advocacy?

3. Economic storm clouds at Yankee Stadium?

n the baseball season’s first few televised games from Yankee Stadium, the premium seats behind home plate, along the baselines and behind the dugouts have seemed to be a third to half empty.

Sure, the weather has been less than ideal. But it leaves me wondering whether ever-escalating ticket prices have collided with the Yankees’ mediocre performance last year and iffy prospects this year to create problems for baseball’s most valuable franchise.

Someone ought to look at attendance figures, advance ticket sales and the TV ratings to see if there’s a story here.

Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill’s Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.