Glenn Greenwald has been back on the warpath against journalitic reliance on anonymous or “background” sources. He argues—and this is clearly true—that officials often game reporters by using the shield of anonymity to provide spin without accountability. “Administration sources” can say different things to different people without being called on the inconsistency. Moreover, “off the record” and “background” are so freely granted that it sometimes seems as though sources just request it by default: There’s little incentive to put your name to even a mildly controversial statement if another reporter will happily put your message out anonymously.
Here’s the problem, though. Sources request “background” or “off the record” status at the beginning of a conversation—that is, before you know what they’re going to say. Maybe they’re just going to give you spin, and maybe they’re going to tell you something that would get them in hot water with an employer or colleague if it were attributed. When you’ve got a relationship with a source over time, of course, you can start being a bit more demanding with the folks who request anonymity for spin. But in a given instance, you don’t know which it is until you hear what they’ve got to say, which often requires agreeing to a source’s terms—at which point you can’t go back on the agreement if they’re just giving you the party line.
That said, Glenn’s certainly on to something here, and it will probably take a collective decision by reporters to change the status quo.
Addendum: As Kevin O’Reilly notes in the comments, what you can of course do is ask a source who’s giving you the party line “on background” exactly why they need background to feed you spin. And we both know the usual answer: “I’m not an authorized spokesperson…” or “I’m not really supposed to go beyond what’s in our official statement, but…” Sometimes that’s a legit answer, and sometimes it’s a dodge. In either case, though, perhaps it gets to the heart of the problem. Companies, agencies, and politicians don’t actually catch much crap from the press when they constrain their official mouthpieces to be little more than text-to-speech devices for their press releases, and (nominally, at least — with a wink and a nudge if you’re saying what they want) bar everyone else from going on the record. And they get away with this in part because we all think: “Well, screw it, I can get what I need on background.” Pressing the background source is going to be futile more often than not: You don’t sign their paychecks, and the easiest thing for them is always going to be to just clam up rather than risk the displeasure of the folks who do. What we need to do is turn up the heat at the institutional level and call bullshit on the “name, rank, serial number, and press release” rule for official flaks. Or, with slightly more sophisticated operations, the “how would I know, I just work here” shell game. You know, you have some fairly basic question and, gosh, they’re just not sure, they’ll have to get back to you. And 24 hours later, they do… with the bare minimum of information that could possibly be construed as responsive to your question. Oh, you have a follow-up? You need clarifications? They’ll have to get back to you. When was your deadline again? Lather, rinse, repeat.
Here there’s not only a collective action problem, but a long-term/short-term problem. What’s in the best interest of The Journalistic Enterprise is to refuse to play the game, run with the official on-the-record statement, and then point out in agonizing detail all the elementary questions they refuse to answer—burning goodwill in the process. What’s almost always in the best interest of the particular story is to suck it up and take what you get on background. Perversely, the folks with the most real ability to hold their feet to the fire here—the major dailies they can’t afford to blow off—may also have the least incentive, since they’re also likely to have the best background access. Still, that’s the pressure point we’re going to have to hit.