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More on Anonyspin

Thanks to Kevin Drum and Michael Crowley for pointing out an explanation that I had missed for the silly little phrases that now litter anonymous quotes in the Washington Post particularly, such as, "...asked not to be named in order to speak more candidly," which tend to give pure White House spin the feel of revealed truth.

Apparently the Post initiated a policy under which quotes from unidentified sources must be justified by an explanation of why the speaker did not want to be named. This has been discussed before, but I must have missed it. I guess that's a reasonable policy , but the results in practice show that it's not exactly empowering the reader. It's like asking people in a job interview to identify their greatest weakness: "I just can't be satisfied unless a job is done right."

But imagine if there was a kind of truth serum involved, and reporters were absolutely required to identify the real, real reason a quote is anonymous:

"...said an official, who asked not to be named because he wanted to create the impression that perhaps the speaker was someone important or someone who was actually in the room when the decision was made, rather than a deputy press secretary reading from a sheet of talking points."

or

"...said an official, who asked not to be named, because he still expects that the cabinet member he just betrayed will take him in as a partner in the lucrative consulting business they intend to start when they leave the administration."

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 8, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

For what it's worth:

"Ground Rules for Interviewing State Department Officials

Ground Rules
Ground rules must be agreed upon at the beginning of a conversation or an interview with State Department officials. The discussion should proceed only after you and the officials are clear on exactly how the information can be used or attributed.

On the Record
Information may be quoted directly and attributed to the official by name and title.

On Background
The official's remarks may be quoted directly or paraphrased and are attributed to a “State Department official” or “Administration official,” as determined by the official.

On Deep Background
The source cannot be quoted or identified in any manner, not even as “an unnamed source.” The information is usually couched in such phrases as “it is understood that” or “it has been learned.” The information may be used to help present the story or to gain a better understanding of the subject, but the knowledge is that of the reporter, not the source.

Off the Record
No information provided may be used in the story. The information is only for the reporter's background knowledge."

Posted by: asdf | May 8, 2004 5:35:23 PM

oh, and I forgot. Here's a great Dana Milbank White House Notebook article about background briefings and anonyspin.

Posted by: asdf | May 8, 2004 5:40:18 PM

Some revelations might be so damaging that the source fears for his life.

Posted by: eric bloodaxe | May 10, 2004 7:44:18 AM

Vince Foster conspiracy theories aside, I doubt that is ever the case when it comes to Congress and the White House.

You really ought to forward these thoughts to the Post's ombudsman if you haven't already. He really does read his mail.

Posted by: Patience | May 14, 2004 3:39:35 PM

I don't know if you're a fan of the British political satire Yes Minister, but here's some funny excerpts on anonymous leaking:

". . .Today I held an off-the-record, non-attributable briefing with the European correspondents. The lobby system really is invaluable. The hacks are keen to get a story, yet lazy enough to accept almost anything that we feed them. . ."

"The Lobby was a uniquely British system, the best way yet devised in any democracy for taming and muzzling the press. This is because it is hard to censor the press when it wants to be free, but easy if it gives up its freedom voluntarily.

There were in the 1980's 150 Lobby Coresspondents, who had the special privilege of being able to mingle with MP's and Ministers in the Lobby behind both chambers of Parliament. However, they were not allowed to report anything they saw - e.g. MPs hitting one another - or anything they overheard.

You may ask: who stipulated what they were not allowed to do? Who made all these restrictions? Answer: The lobby correspondents themselves! In return for the freedom of access to Ministers and MPs, they excercised the most surprising and elaborate self-censorship.

The Lobby received daily briefings from the Prime Minister's Press Secretary at Number Ten Downing Street, and weeky briefings from the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition. All these briefings were unattributable. The Lobby Correspondents argued that, in return for their self-censorship, they would learn infinitely more about the government its motives, and its plans. The politicians loved the Lobby system because they could leak any old rubbish, which the Lobby would generally swallow whole. As they had heard it in confidence, they believed it must be true.

We believe, with the advantage of hindsight, that the Lobby was merely one example of the way in which the British establishment dealt with potential danger or criticism - it would embrace the danger, and thus suffocate it.

The Lobby certainly discouraged political journalists from going out and searching for a story, as they only had to sit on their bottoms in Annie's Bar (the bar exclusively reserved for the press, with the highest alchoholic consumption of any of the thirteen bars within the Palace of Westminster - which was saying something!) and a `leak' would come their way."

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