The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The off the record Bush briefing - another arcanum from the wacky world of journalism

Financial journalist Patrick Hutber of the Sunday Telegraph (a Thatcherite avant l'heure) invented a cod sociological law [1]
Improvement means Deterioration

A similar paradox is often to be found in supposed attempts at openness in government, and accountability in journalism. What is touted as, and, at first sight, appears to be, a genuine benefit to citizens and readers leaves government more opaque and journalism skulking more deeply within its professional laager.

As with the deep background briefing given by President Bush to five network hacks, as described in a WaPo piece (March 3) by Mike Allen.

He explains that deep background means
that the information can be used but not attributed to anyone.

Which may strike readers as strange, given that his lede runs thus:
President Bush said privately yesterday that he believes Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) will be a tough and hard-charging opponent, but said he feels he is starting the general election from a stronger position than he did in 2000.

How are those two things squared? Welcome to the hieratic world of hackery, the world where Humpty-Dumpty's nice knock-down argument is king [2].

Allen's explanation:
Word of the meeting got around before it was over. Several people provided accounts of it to The Washington Post but spoke only on the condition of anonymity because, in the view of the White House and by the agreement of the networks, the conversation never officially occurred.

The layman might enquire just what other events might the networks be prepared to say never occurred?

This piece of nonsense follows hard on the heels - and who knows whether some White House humorist had this in mind? - on the publication [3] by the bosses of the New York Times and Washington Post of memos on the use of anonymous sources.

Allowing officials - in the Administration, yes, but also in other parts of government - to use anonymity for no good reason is probably the single current journalistic practice most damaging to media credibility.

And, as if to put the cherry on top of that particular cake, Allen reveals that
Bush has occasionally spoken to network anchors and conservative columnists as a "senior administration official"

That is flat-out ridiculous! My guess is that not one in a hundred regular readers of the WaPo dead-tree politics pages would guess that a quote from a senior administration official would ever be from Bush. And I'd be fairly certain that the media outlet who used Bush-as-SAO quotes would know as much.

By what contortions can so blatantly misleading a practice be justified as ethical?

And these are the same fine gentlemen who hold their nose at the mention of Matt Drudge!

As the late John Junor of the Sunday Express would say, Pass the sick-bag, Alice.

  1. After the manner of Parkinson's Law - coined by C Northcote Parkinson.

  2. Earlier pieces, such as on February 23, looked at other aspects of the phenomenon.

  3. In Romenesko, at least.


Shouldn't let the moment pass without checking the 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical I'd Rather Be Right, which starrred George M Cohan as Franklin Roosevelt.

One of Cohan's numbers was Off the Record - reprised on celluloid by James Cagney as Cohan in the 1942 Yankee Doodle Dandy. (The lyrics, transcribed by an Italian, apparently.)

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