Beltway Anonymity

Friday, June 10th, 2011

I spoke at a conference for journalism students all this week. On Wednesday, I talked to the students a bit about anonymous sourcing, and when it’s appropriate. There’s a time and place for anonymous sources, and that’s generally when they’re blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, and could face serious repercussions if named.

Unfortunately, anonymous sourcing is least appropriate when it’s most often used—in political reporting. Washington reporters routinely grant anonymity to political sources for absurd, banal, self-serving “insights.”

Which brings us to this Washington Post article about growing conservative disaffection with Mitt Romney.

“The fact that he doesn’t change his position . . . that’s the upside for us,” said one Romney adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign. “He’s not going to change his mind on these issues to put his finger in the wind for what scores points with these parts of the party.”

Thank goodness WaPo reporters Philip Rucker and Peter Wallsten gave anonymity to this Romney adviser. If they hadn’t, we’d never have learned that Romney is a principled, honorable politician unswayed by fickle primary voters. Bold!

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26 Responses to “Beltway Anonymity”

  1. #1 |  What Radley said § Unqualified Offerings | 

    […] is funny how whistleblowers are scorned by Serious People, yet nobody sees a problem with giving anonymity to campaign mouthpieces. Posted by Thoreau @ 11:00 am, Filed under: Main Comments (0) « « Diary of an […]

  2. #2 |  Brandon | 

    He doesn’t change his position? I’ve never heard him actually take a position. His entire platform seems to be “look at my hair! It’s always perfect, and has a shock of white in it to show my experience and gravitas, while still retaining most of its youthful black vigor!”

  3. #3 |  Stephen VanDyke | 

    To be fair, most political writing barely qualifies as journalism.

  4. #4 |  Cyto | 

    I’m surprised you picked up on that. I thought the same thing as I was listening to radio reports of that story last night during my commute home. I was surprised that the reports (all the sources I listened to – well, the local AM sports radio news feed and NPR) used that same language.

    It set my mind to wandering on the tactics and techniques used by political reporters and operatives to spin stories. In addition to the unnamed source, there’s the reporter’s decision on how to name the unnamed. In this case it was a Romney advisor – lending credibility to the story. In other cases they’ll leave off the source and present this as original analysis. You really see this a lot in stories on economic issues or political fallout.

    These subtleties are really useful when a negative story comes out in politics. If the reporter favors the candidate in question, then it becomes his opponent’s party’s “allegations” – tending to discredit them. If he’s opposed, they are unsourced or sourced as being uncovered by the reporter – lending more “objectivity” to the allegations.

    I wonder how far back this sort of gamesmanship goes? My first exposure to this phenomenon was when C-SPAN went on the air. Suddenly you could watch the pols doing their standups and briefings live, with no edits, no filters. You’d see the the President’s deputy press secretary handing out “fact sheets” and explaining that this fact was to be sourced as “administration officials”, and the next item is from “high-ranking state department officials”. Really weird to watch. I had always assumed that the reporter had actually talked to some “high-ranking state department officials” in that situation, but C-SPAN showed me that he might have simply been handed a press release by a deputy press secretary (political operative).

    The other thing they revealed is the controlling of the language. You’d see the DNC chairman explain that bill XYZ was a “brazen attack” on something or other – and that night every news anchor would dutifully report “Bill XYZ, a brazen attack on…”. Always using the exact key words provided in their briefing. I don’t do C-SPAN any more. Do they still have this stuff, or has it all moved underground to conference calls and email lists?

  5. #5 |  Mike T | 

    Last I heard, it was precisely the fact that he went from a very liberal republican to a “conservative republican” in just a few years without any new political record to prove his conversion experience that made the republican base squeamish about him.

  6. #6 |  Dave Krueger | 

    The problem with this kind of reporting (and I use the term very loosely) is that once someone has pointed it out to you, you start noticing it everywhere and pretty soon you begin to wonder if reporters ever actually come into contact with any facts other than the fabricated ones fed to them by interested parties.

  7. #7 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    “He’s not only a great boss who would take a bullet for his employees, but he’s really a guy’s guy.” said a Durkin adviser who spoke the condition of anonymity.

    I see nothing wrong with this practice, but calling a stripper an “adviser” is a stretch.

    Having been interviewed many times and taken part in many political round table discussions with reporters*, I’d say all of them mail-in their work while staying cozy with all the campaigns.

    *NH goes nuts every 4 years and even the moose get interviewed.

  8. #8 |  Greg | 

    I wonder how far back this sort of gamesmanship goes?


    When I was a young man, teh internetz was ARPANET. While it brought me a really great list of 500 blonde jokes, it wasn’t the freakin’ world on the desk. Hence, we had to do research in libraries – which leads to stumbling into all sorts of unexpected stuff.

    Anyway, if you get bored sometime, dig up some of the newspapers from the early 1900s (or prior). Sensationalist even by Murdochian standards, obvious political spin, and neutrality – what neutrality?

    As to the pre-management of press releases and suchlike, reading many Presidential bios/autobios will make you d-oh! more often than Homer Simpson.

  9. #9 |  Greg | 

    I see nothing wrong with this practice, but calling a stripper an “adviser” is a stretch.

    That depends very heavily on scenario.

  10. #10 |  SJE | 

    Yep. Meanwhile the guy who blew the whistle on illegallity and incompetence at the NSA was looking at prison.

  11. #11 |  Aresen | 

    *NH goes nuts every 4 years and even the moose get interviewed.

    Out of curiousity, is the moose registered (D) or (R)?

  12. #12 |  André |


  13. #13 |  Andrew Roth | 

    It has often struck me that the medium dictates the message, especially on television. Short-form news broadcasts heavy on visual aids seem to encourage shallow theatrics. It should be easier to gussy up a bunch of hackneyed talking points if you’re telegenic, properly made up and good at delivering scripted lines than if you have to write a long-form newspaper article and can’t blow people away with your slick persona.

    The evidence that newspaper articles are permeated with this sort of rubbish pokes some holes in my thesis. Maybe I have to recalibrate my bullshit detector. On the other hand, the WaPo gave us David Broder’s banalities, and the NY Times has given us the premier authorities on Flat World 2.0, the Applebee’s salad bar and all that. And the Beltway press corps is more and more transparently a bunch of courtiers.

  14. #14 |  Andrew Roth | 

    Re: #2: LMFAO! That is exactly the vibe that Romney wants. It’s a lot more effective than Gingrich’s, “look at me, I’m a porky, white-haired Washington careerist with an erratic personality, a creepy wife and a bunch of skeletons in my closet!”

    Superficial appearances take on a vital importance in our television-besotted age. I suspect that they helped kill John McCain’s 2008 general election campaign, since his age really showed and he didn’t have a very good stage presence. (By the same token, however, Huckabee should have done better than he did in the primary, so it’s just one factor). In earlier elections relatively poor stage presence hurt John Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush, Walter Mondale, and Jimmy Carter.

    In fact, video killed the radio star in 1960, when Richard Nixon refused to man up and put on makeup for his televised debate against JFK. Slimy, telegenic con men are masterful at using TV to their advantage to distract voters from serious matters of policy, background and moral fitness. Reagan, Clinton and W all were. Clinton would have been an effective politician in any age, but I’m not so sure about Reagan, a screen actor who ended his presidency in early-stage dementia, or W, a sorry dilettante who was able to spin himself a reputation as a plain-talking cowboy.

    As it happens, I’ve heard some of Romney’s policies, including in his recent interview with Piers Morgan, and I think he makes a fair amount of sense. He doesn’t seem evasive on Romneycare, for one thing. My big problem with him is that he can be dissembling, flip-flopping political wind vane in the tradition of Reagan and Clinton. This time around, he’s pandering to the wing nuts on abortion; in 2008, he was pandering to the fascists on torture. Neither bit of demagoguery speaks to his character or credibility.

  15. #15 |  Andrew Roth | 

    On a related note, man-on-the-street commentaries should generally be banned as a matter of journalistic ethics. For the most part they’re used as a shoddy veneer of thoroughness and objectivity. I can’t say how many hundreds of articles I’ve seen, usually in local rags but sometimes in large-market papers of record, that went to shit when some asinine observation from a man on the street was tacked onto the end.

    One of the things that I like about the New York Times is that it is much more judicious than most papers in this area, so the man-on-the-street comments that it prints tend to be more pertinent and intelligent.

    At the same time, I’d say offhand that the Times is almost as guilty as any paper of printing contrived anonymous leaks from political operatives. That’s shitty, unethical journalism by any reasonable standard. It’s just that the NYT is often the best of a bad lot.

  16. #16 |  Loader | 

    I much prefer the Hunter S. Thompson method of political reporting, where everyone has a name and leaks from the inner circle consist of shit that slips out after a long night in the hotel bar.

  17. #17 |  Windy | 

    Every time I see man-on-the-street interviews I always think of Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments.

  18. #18 |  croaker | 

    @17 There are similarities. In jaywalking you won’t get on the air unless you say something real stupid. Man-on-the-street won’t be aired unless you agree with the editorial slant.

    Way back when term limits was the main question, I got a camera/microphone in my face asking about it. “One in office, one in jail. Works for me.” For some strange reason the TV station didn’t use that one.

  19. #19 |  André |

    The actual title on this page is “Rick Santorum | A Frothy Mixture for President”. I think someone needs to fire a copyeditor.

  20. #20 |  croaker | 

    @19 More likely he was hacked by Code Pink. I don’t see it anymore.

    I take it you were living under a rock when the GLBT crowd hounded him out of office in PA?

  21. #21 |  André | 

    Heh, I actually voted against him in 06. not a vote I regret.

  22. #22 |  JThompson | 

    @croaker: Yeah, it was shameful the way they hounded him out of office. All he did was insist they weren’t people and didn’t deserve to live.

  23. #23 |  freedomfan | 

    JThompson (#22),

    All [Santorum] did was insist they weren’t people and didn’t deserve to live.

    Really? I can’t stand “traditional/religious/family values” politicians and Rick Santorum is their mascot. But, did he really insist that gay people didn’t deserve to live? I’d love to see a reliable cite on that. Because, as easily as I could believe Santorum didn’t support funding this or that program or is against repealing Clinton’s DADT or DOMA, or whatever, that’s not close to saying a group of people doesn’t deserve to live…

  24. #24 |  David | 

    As far as I know he didn’t say gay people deserve to die. He did equate “sodomy” with “man on dog” when discussing Lawrence v. Texas, which led directly to his nickname.

  25. #25 |  croaker |

  26. #26 |  darryl |