I've never objected in general to anonymous sources in newspaper articles. Most stories that provide real new information involve some sources who are taking a chance by telling their story, and that goes double for those in a system as closed and intolerant of dissent as the Bush administration, just as it was in the Nixon administration.
Although anonymous sources are often assumed to be shakier and less trustworthy than those willing to put their name behind a statement and take responsibility for it, it's often the case that greater credibility attaches to an unnamed source, who is assumed to be acting independently in revealing the truth, than to the spin of an official spokesperson. It's the difference between, say, "White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the President was committed to the Middle East peace process," which is just the official position, and "an administration official who asked not to be named said that the President had expressed a strong commitment to bring peace to the Middle East." While both are baloney, the second sentence seems to be revealing something a little deeper and more real than the first.
The master practitioner of this art form was Henry Kissinger, the original "high-ranking administration offiical." But this administration, at every level, has mastered the art of using the anonymous quote to deliver pure vacuous spin, with the particular assistance of the Washington Post. Fairly often, for example, one finds sentences such as, "'The president believes our long-term economic outlook is bright and that Congress should make the tax cuts permanent to create jobs,' said an administration official who asked not to be named." Why not? What's the point of that? And why can't a reporter say, "Look, if you're just going to give me a pre-packaged soundbite from the press office -- or if you are the press office -- I'm not going to put your words in unnamed. Either stand behind it, or I'm just going to paraphrase."
Washingtonian magazine late last year published a good little rundown on who the unnamed sources usually are. Unbelievably, it's often the official spokespeople themselves.
More recently, I've noticed the proliferation of little phrases intended to give even a little more credibility to anonyspin: "...said an official who asked not to be named because his responsibilities do not include speaking to the press" is a phrase I've noticed a few times in the Post particularly. That creates the impression that the reporter is operating a little behind the scenes, finding the worker bees who know the real deal. I guess this is really just code that means it's not the press secretary or the agency spokesperson speaking. On the other hand, the official obviously is speaking to the press, and if the line he's pitching is just the standard Scott McLellan line, then why does it matter what his formal responsibilities are? He's speaking to the press and the nature of the quote makes it obvious that he's been authorized to do so.
And then a classic example this morning in the Post, although it is a minor footnote to the almost unbearable stories about torture at Abu Ghraib: "Bush is 'not satisfied' and 'not happy' with the way Rumsfeld informed him about the investigation into abuses by U.S. soldiers ..., according to the official, who refused to be named so he could speak more candidly."
But there's absolutely nothing "more candid" about these quotes. It was the line of the day, in every paper and on every morning news show: Bush was angry at Rumsfeld, and castigated him. I assume it's true, but for all we know it's not. The point is, it's the story that Scott McClellan and Dan Bartlett decided should be in the paper this morning. The official is hardly going to get fired for putting out the line of the day. Under those circumstances, I think there's no reason for the reporter to allow the quote to be anonymous, or for it to bear the subtle editorial endorsement that it is "more candid" because anonymous.
My guess is that these phrases are not the reporters' own emendations, but are carefully negotiated terms, under which the White House officials refuse to provide a quote unless it is anonymous and is given one of these endorsing phrases. What puzzles me is why the reporters seems to have no leverage in this negotiation. Why can't they just say, we don't need a quote under those conditions?
A Dozen Amazing College Students
I gave a talk today to a group of college students, mostly about campaign finance reform. Over the past few years, I've done that three or four times a year, and I love doing it -- every time I wonder why I didn't become an academic. (I know why, but that's another story.) Talking about campaign finance reform is not my favorite thing, however. In my experience, most college students and even law students don't seem to have enough background to put the issue in context, and they view it as a set of technicalities that most politicians will evade anyway. Most have never voted and certainly not given money to a politician (unless their wealthy parents put their name on a check), so it's just not an issue that's interesting to them.
But today's talk was the complete opposite. These 12 or so students were totally knowledgeable about the issues. They'd read two long essays that I'd written on the subject -- thoroughly, quoting passages back to me and challenging my assumptions -- along with all kinds of other materials, like a George Will column attacking campaign finance reform, and proposals to change the New York City public financing system. Every single student asked at least one question, most of which were profound and difficult to answer. One student, for example, asked me whether my apparent belief that the United States should be an inclusive society that encouraged broad participation and a sense of mutual obligation stemmed from my own religious beliefs, and, if not, then from what source did I derive that moral certainty? Another, in the course of asking a question about free broadcast time for political candidates made as good a case for requiring broadcasters to meet a set of public obligations as I've ever heard. I don't really mean to single those two out, because every question was based on serious thinking about American history, democratic theory, and current events.
This class was at the Eastern Correctional Facility in upstate New York. It's a maximum security prison, and the students are enrolled in the Bard Prison Initiative (scroll down for info), the only full liberal arts program in the New York state prison system. The students get Bard College credits, at no cost, for their work in these very serious classes, many of which are taught by senior faculty of the college.
It's worth noting, in light of what I said about college students above, that these students cannot vote, and in many states, they would be prohibited for life from exercising their rights as citizens of a democracy.
In a number of posts recently, I've looked back on some of the ugly things that happened in Congress in the 1994 crime bill, which in my mind is the watershed moment when the Gingrich conservatives took control, even more than the 1994 elections, and the beginning of most of the more recent ugliness. Mostly I've focused on the implications for the congressional process. But there were very serious substantive results as well. One of those was the denial of Pell Grants for prison education programs. This was a classic example of the bullshit, slogan politics of that time, and now: "why should criminals get a college education?" But the result was not trivial: there had been 70 college programs in New York's correctional facilities in 1994, and that number went to zero after the crime bill and before the Bard Initiative started. It was one of the many huge mistakes of the last decade, and one that should be reversed as soon as possible.
How to read a poll
I suppose it doesn't really matter, since public opinion is what it is, and polls are just a clumsy way to measure it, but it is absurd that this headline appeared in so many papers today: Newsday.com - President's Job Approval Rating Rebounds, followed by this lede:
President George W. Bush's job approval rating, which had slumped in several recent polls, has bounced back to 56 percent in a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released yesterday.
Here's political analyst Charlie Cook's take, from the very best poll, also today:
Since Labor Day, the decline looks more like a real drop than a
settling, and the triple issues of the economy, the deficit and Iraq
have become conjoined. An Ipsos/Cook Political Report poll taken last
Tuesday through Thursday of 787 registered voters showed Bush's approval
rating had dropped four points from three weeks ago, from 55 percent to
51 percent. That was six points lower than the 57 percent approval
rating seen in both the months of July and August.
It's this simple: The CNN/Gallup approval numbers have always been higher than other polls, by five or six points. I'll leave it to Ruy Teixera to explain exactly why, although I'll note that the reason is usually not bias, but a simple methodological difference. (This beautiful chart at Pollkatz shows the various polls -- the pink diamonds near the top each week are the CNN-Gallup numbers.) The 50% approval a week or so ago was an anomaly in the Gallup poll, and everyone knew it. Having Bush back at 56% approval is just a return to the normal trend for this Bush-tilting poll, and it's still lower than his approval in that particular poll at any time between Sept 11, 2001 and August 2003.