Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Manipulating the Media

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 6, 2004; Page A19
© 2004 The Washington Post Company

One side effect of Richard A. Clarke's testimony to the Sept. 11 commission was to bring the Washington notion of the "backgrounder" to the fore.

The notion of speaking "on background" has been around for decades, allowing reporters to get senior administration officials to speak candidly, and sometimes critically, about their boss's policies. But somewhere along the line, administrations learned to turn background backward. The White House now organizes authorized background briefings almost weekly, in which officials are cloaked in anonymity. It appears from these sessions that the anonymity is not to protect officials who say something negative -- but to shield them from embarrassment for sounding like cheerleaders.

Two hours before Clarke's testimony, the White House allowed Fox News to out him as the anonymous official who gave the background briefing in 2002. Clarke thus found himself in the awkward position of explaining how all those nice things he said anonymously about the administration were not what they seemed. He testified that this method of shading is quite common -- a claim that seems to be supported by a quick scan of other background briefings over the past year.

Mr. Milbank goes on to cite four other examples of carefully-scripted "backgrounders" that, as he says, shield them from embarrassment for sounding like cheerleaders.  Unfortunately, all the examples cited are from the current Bush administration.  This gives the impression -- without stating explicitly -- that the practice is particularly prevalent in the current Administration.  He then adds one more example:

If Clarke's testimony has exposed background briefings as so much creative oratory, this has not stopped the practice. On Sunday afternoon, the White House announced a conference call so a background briefer could say: "Friday's jobs report, the creation of 308,000 jobs and seven consecutive months of job creation totaling over three-quarters of a million jobs is a powerful confirmation that the economic policies of this administration are working."

By the end of the briefing, reporters had had enough. "I'm just wondering," one asked the anonymous briefer, "what possible reason there is why all this isn't on the record?"

Good question.  I would like to see Mr. Milbank provide some historical perspective.  I am tempted to use Milbank's article as yet another example of the current Administration manipulating the media, but that would not be fair without knowing if other Administrations have done the same thing, to the same extent.