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Anonyspin again

An e-mail reminded me of a post I did a long time ago about the recently adopted practice in newspapers of allowing quotes to be anonymous even when they represented the official position of the agency, and often adding little explanatory comments such as, "...asked not to be named in order to be more candid," even if the comment was no more candid than the official line of the day. I later learned that this practice results from an editorial directive to give some sort of reason that a quote is anonymous.

The e-mailer found this in the Times on August 22:

"If they were running against a Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, nominee, they'd be down 10 points,'' said one Republican strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid being accused by fellow Republicans of disloyalty. "But they're not. They have the advantage of running against a guy who is basically a liberal from Massachusetts."

Not sure what the disloyalty is in a Republican strategies saying that Bush is going to kick Kerry's ass.

And then there's this classic, from the Times last Sunday, in an article on charges of employment discrimination at the RAND Corporation:

A department spokesman - the Labor Department does not allow its spokesmen and spokeswomen to be identified by name - said that breaking the rules did not necessarily disqualify a contractor.

"If someone gets a speeding ticket," he said, "it doesn't mean they can't ever drive again."

What is that about? A federal agency employs people to be its official spokespeople, and doesn't allow them to be named? Is there any possible reason for that? In other cases, the papers say that people "asked not to be named because his responsibilities do not include speaking to the press." Yet hear is someone whose only responsibility is to speak to the press, and yet he or she still wants to remain anonymous? Very strange.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 11, 2004 | Permalink


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I'm a reporter, and this is a problem that began with the swearing-in of George Bush. I write about mortgages and real estate, so most of my calls to federal spokespeople are to the ones at HUD. They almost always ask not to be quoted by name, even if I'm merely asking them to define a term or explain some statistical material. I've never asked why, because I figure that's just the way the weird press ecology in Washington works nowadays. (Everyone in Washington looks down on any reporter who calls from outside the 202 area code, so when I'm poorly treated it doesn't arouse my curiosity.)

During the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton administrations, spokespeople in federal departments and agencies allowed themselves to be quoted by name.

The Bush II policy reached its nadir a couple of years ago when I wanted to talk to someone at a HUD field office in South Dakota for a story about housing in Indian country. I called the person in South Dakota, who called a spokeswoman in DC, who called me and said I could interview the woman in South Dakota on the phone if I attributed the quotes to the woman in DC. I said no, because that would be lying to my readers.

I wonder how many reporters submit to such misleading ground rules.

Posted by: Holden Lewis | Sep 11, 2004 5:20:48 PM

Is it any wonder, specifically in this administration, that everyone would like to stay anonymous? Just ask General Shinseki.

Posted by: Fr33d0m | Sep 12, 2004 1:16:28 AM

I noticed that the New York Times' public editor addressed this in today's column.


Posted by: Eric H | Sep 12, 2004 4:59:02 PM

Welcome back Mark, you've been missed.

If anything, I would say that the whole bit about labor department spokesmen remaining nameless has to do with them being messengers for the department, and that their names aren't particularly important to delivering that message.

Not that that makes a great deal of sense; it's just all I could come up with.

Posted by: Kennedy | Sep 14, 2004 1:25:22 AM

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Posted by: Mary | Jan 18, 2005 12:28:28 PM

You are right.

Posted by: mike | Apr 7, 2006 8:34:07 AM