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Spinonymous? Anonyspin?

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?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 6, 2004 | Permalink


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Another great piece, Mark. I share your amused frustration at the complicity of the press in the unnamed-source-spin game. A couple of cycles back, the Akron Beacon Journal tried an interesting approach to the problem in their local and Congressional election coverage: they refused to take quotes from anyone bu the candidate. No press secretaries, no campaign managers, nuthin'. If the candidate couldn't be moved to make a comment, then the candidate would not have one in the story. The uproar on the part of the campaigns was palpable -- and the experiment did not last. I do not know whether it was because of the uproar, or whether the reporter who instigated it moved on (my details are slightly fuzzy).

Imagine if the Post only took comments from prinicpals and only printed anonymous quotes if they were clearly minority views in opposition to the official line?

Posted by: Brad Rourke | May 7, 2004 10:35:55 AM

I know you don't need any more praise heaped on you. But this post is a classic.

Put a link to it on your front page, it will be as timely a month, or a year, from now as it is today.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry | May 7, 2004 3:44:26 PM

You obviously haven't heard about the recent press gathering that Bush spoke to. The biggest applause line was when Bush vowed to permanently eliminate the estate tax. That tells you everything you need to know about the modern corporate press. These guys are wealthy people who are primarily invested in protecting their interests, not in doing their jobs. So they're quite willing to be used by the administration; to refuse might jeopardize their careers, and thus their perks.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD | May 7, 2004 6:02:44 PM

Yeah, I wonder what's going on when I see quotes like these. Are the reporters nonpartisan pushovers who dumbly allow themselves to be conduits for anonyspin? Or does a shared political ideology move them to help out the McClellans and Kissingers of the world?

Posted by: Neil Sinhababu | May 7, 2004 6:18:00 PM

Didn't the NYT recently run a correction saying that the source of some quote was a government official who asked not to be identified, not Condoleezza Rice?

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | May 8, 2004 12:19:43 AM

So insightful. This anominity is so confusing. The Bush administration labels the "media" as "liberal" but yet the media has played its part in the descension of any moral authority we [the U.S.] might have had, emphasizing "might."

Posted by: Melody Brown, J.D. | May 19, 2004 1:49:08 PM