Why the Press Revolt Against Anonymous Briefings Is a FarceS

The White House press corps is launching another one of its periodic protests against the practice of "senior administration officials" giving background briefings to reporters on the condition that they not be named, and they've outed yesterday's briefers on the Sotomayor nomination to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz.

No surprises: The senior admistration officials quoted in yesterday afternoon's raft of online stories about Sotomayor's nomination were David Axelrod and Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff Ron Klain.

Several journalists in the Roosevelt Room briefing protested, saying there was no reason the officials couldn't speak on the record. One of the briefers, senior adviser David Axelrod, would be making a similar case on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and PBS within hours. But Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stood his ground: No names could be attached.

The whole practice is a farce. These are not furtive conversations with sources conducted in parking garages—they are mini-press-conferences convened by the White House press office. Transcripts are often published by the White House, but with the names redacted. So what's the point of anonymity? The Los Angeles Times' James Rainey sums up the traditional White House case for stripping out the identities of the briefers: "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."

That's nonsense. No reader would be so dazzled by Ron Klain's name as to forget what the story they are reading is about. The real reason is basic risk-aversion: The system has been in place for years, and to change it would only allow Klain and Axelrod's words to catch up with them later. They don't want any reporters to be able to say, "But you said...!" a month from now, when Sotomayor turns out to really be a foreigner or something (we read about that somewhere!). To upset the cozy little arrangement only invites potential headaches, and the downsides of briefing anonymously are obviously nil.

Unless you count whining from reporters. The Associated Press' Jennifer Loven tells Kurtz: "We protest in the strongest terms the Obama administration's frequent use of briefings done on a background basis...especially when the same officials briefing often appear ubiquitously on television shows with similar information." The strongest terms! Well, not quite. The strongest term available to Loven would be to not show up for the briefing, and to not allow her news organization to be used by the White House to deliver its spin anonymously. Press secretary Robert Gibbs knows this, and calls her bluff:

Asked for a response, Gibbs said it was "interesting" that the AP had no qualms about relying on unnamed "officials" in breaking the news of Sotomayor's nomination. "I'm not sure today is the day I'd make that argument," he said.

Another White House flack makes the same point to Rainey:

"As recently as this morning several staffers in our press office were contacted by reporters at the LA Times requesting background information on a variety of issues," Psaki e-mailed me. "We provided them with what they asked for and assume the practice is helpful since the requests from the LA Times and countless other papers continue."

Which is why Loven's legitimate complaint qualifies as a whine: It's coming from an active participant in the very snow-job she's decrying.

The irony of this debate is that it's over nothing: Axelrod made the TV rounds yesterday afternoon after that secret background briefing, and said almost precisely the same things that his "senior administration official" alter ego said, only this time you could see his face. Here's some side-by-side comparisons:

  • Senior Administration Official:
    "The president made his final decision after the weekend and called Sotomayor around 9 p.m. ET Monday, a senior administration official added."

    Axelrod:
    "And then finally, last night, after giving it a lot of thought, he was in his study at 8:00 o'clock at night, and he made the decision. He picked up the phone and called her…."

  • SAO:
    "She did what appeals court judges do, which is apply precedent," a senior administration official said of the case that is now before the Supreme Court. "That shows the kind of judicial restraint she brought to her job as a court of appeals judge. In the confirmation process, people are going to have to choose between attacking her for not applying the law or applying the law. People may not like the result, but she applied the law."

    Axelrod:
    "She ruled in that case on the law. In fact, the decision was rendered in keeping with the precedent of the 2nd circuit. And in the brief opinion the panel ruled—the panel said…they were bound by the precedent in the circuit. [Y]ou can't have it both ways. You can't say, I don't want judicial activists, and then when someone rules on the basis of legal precedent, you say they're legislating from the bench.

  • SAO:
    "What the president has said is that he is looking for someone who embodies legal excellence, restraint, a sense of how judging works and an understanding of its real-world consequences," said a senior administration official.

    Axelrod:
    "He had a set of principles, Chris, that he was concerned about. One is he wanted someone who had clear legal excellence and broad experience…. [H]e wanted someone who brought a real-life experience to the court that would help animate those discussions and give people a sense about how the law impacts on real people."

  • SAO:
    "The question for him was, 'Is this a person who's got the toughness, the intellectual capacity, to stand up to John Roberts?'" said one senior administration official. "He came out of his interview with her on Thursday and said that he had no concerns whatsoever about her intellectual ability to stand up to Roberts."

    Axelrod:
    "[Obama] was very impressed with his exchange with her, felt…her knowledge and her understanding of the law and her history and her mastery of case law was something very, very impressive. So…when she gets to the court, I think you are going to find that she`s an active and influential participant…."

  • SAO:
    "[We]'re not expecting a war," a senior administration official said Tuesday.

    Axelrod:
    "I would hope that we could put together a large coalition of Republicans and Democrats for her nomination, and I hope that she gets a fair hearing. And I think she will."

  • SAO:
    There was a "full vet," according to a senior administration official, and both her taxes and health were examined. Sotomayor has diabetes, and White House aides consulted both her doctor and other doctors to ensure that she was fit to serve.

    Axelrod:
    "Well, we had communications with her doctor, who provided a letter analyzing her health situation. We talked to other doctors. We believe that she's going to—her diabetes is well controlled. And we believe she's going to serve with distinction for many years to come."