Nameless and Faceless

Why do federal officials hide behind the cloak of anonymity-and why does the news industry indulge them?

Is that cherished Washington institution, the anonymous background briefing, about to go the way of the dinosaur? Don't bet on it.

For those who are blessedly unfamiliar with the anonymous backgrounder, it works like this: Reporters are gathered together for a briefing by a knowledgeable federal official, often a high-ranking career civil servant who happens to be an expert in whatever the White House has decided is the news of the day. But Mr. or Ms. Authority can be quoted only as a "senior administration official."

Why the cloak of anonymity? Top political officials say it's because they're the ones who are supposed to issue policy statements for the executive branch. They also don't want their subordinates to look smarter than them in print and over the airwaves.

Increasingly, media organizations don't like these absurd shadow briefings. In the wake of high-profile scandals involving newspaper editors who got snookered by their own reporters' use of fictional sources-some of them unnamed-institutionalized anonymity has become a fat target. Daniel Okrent, the "public editor" of The New York Times, earlier this year challenged the Associated Press and five of the country's largest newspapers to band together and refuse to cover anonymous backgrounders. Former Washington Post ombudswoman Geneva Overholser urged Washington bureau chiefs of news organizations to boycott such briefings. And Jack Shafer, media columnist for the online publication Slate, has upped the ante by outing background briefers whose names he can unearth (it's usually not very hard).

Their quest is at once laudable and hopelessly idealistic. Efforts to herd the media on this issue are almost certainly doomed, because, as Shafer notes, news organizations fear betrayal by their rivals and "too many publications prefer having news fed to them in a sippy cup."

Government, too, has powerful incentives to continue hiding behind the veil of anonymity. Those of us who cover the federal government on a regular basis are endlessly frustrated by agencies that seek to erect barriers between reporters and the people inside the bureaucracy who really know the ins and outs of issues. When readers see government officials quoted anonymously, they tend to think reporters are putting one over on them, making sources seem more important than they are. That certainly happens from time to time, but it's much more likely that the official in question is either too scared to talk on the record, or isn't allowed to.

Now some media bigwigs have launched their own crusades-of a sort-against anonymity. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post published lengthy policies designed to limit the use of anonymous sources earlier this year. But both are full of exceptions and hair-splitting distinctions. The Post's editors, for example, reject the terms "sources" and "informed sources" as too vague, but say "sources familiar with" is acceptable. In early April-about six weeks after the Post issued its edict-Erik Wemple of the Washington City Paper noted that the effort had resulted in an immediate jump in the use of the "sources familiar with" designation. In the previous month, he determined, Post reporters used "sources familiar with" 63 times, as opposed to an average of 42 mentions in each of the two months before that.

Even when rules on anonymity are simple and direct, they're often honored in the breach. For example, the Post's regulations outlaw "ad hominem quotations from unnamed sources," stating that "sources who want to take a shot at someone in our columns should do so in their own names." But in late September, Lisa de Moraes, the paper's TV columnist, let an anonymous source take a whack at NBC Television Network president Jeff Zucker, describing the source as "a Zucker detractor who wanted to remain nameless because that's how it's done in Hollywood when you're detracting."

Anonymous sourcing is like a drug. And like many drugs, it has its benefits. Some of the most important news stories ever published have come from whistleblowers who justifiably used the cloak of anonymity to avoid reprisal. But right now, agencies and the media both are addicted to vagueness and inscrutability, and it will take a lot more than the efforts currently under way to break their habit.

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