A Not-So Earnest Defense

Reprinted from BJayCooper.com

Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post columnist who I respect greatly, has a column today on anonymous news sources and a kerfuffle started by the new White House press secretary, Josh Earnest.

Anonymous sourcing for news stories has been a controversial issue in the journalism industry for years, and a contentious subject in any White House which doesn’t like dealing with stories based on anonymous sources because, a. the stories tend to be true and it’s an easy answer (“we don’t comment on anonymous sources”) and, b. every White House does “background” briefing where officials talk but the ground rule is you can’t use their names.

I’ve been on both sides – as a reporter and a spokesman. A good journalist’s goal is to get all information on the record with a named source. It’s more accurate that way. Sometimes though the only way to get information is to get it “on background” so you can use the info, but not name the source. On the other side, White Houses often put administration spokesmen out there “on background” because the official can be more candid but if he/she screws up, there’s no name attached. Sometimes they do it to send up a trial balloon. Or the official is briefing the media on an announcement the President made and don’t want other names in the story. Sometimes it isn’t a sanctioned background briefing but an individual with an ax to grind or who disagrees with a policy or is just trying to curry favor with the media. And there are other reasons.

A few years ago, major newspapers said that they wouldn’t just cite an “anonymous source” but identify the person’s role as best they can without giving away who it is. This has devolved into attributions such as, “according to a source who didn’t want to be named because he didn’t want to be seen criticizing” the president, his boss, or whoever.

It is a debate without an answer because, as has become an accepted saying lately, “it is what it is” and it always shall be thus.

So, the reality is, the best way to get information to the public for a reporter is sometimes to use unnamed sources. Period. The best way for a White House to get information out is to put an unnamed official out there. Period.

For Mr. Earnest to hide behind the “I won’t comment on an anonymous sources comments,” at the same time HIS office is sending an email to reporters notifying them of a sanctioned briefing by a source who cannot be named may be the height of hypocrisy and chutzpah. And, as Ruth Marcus points out, the story in question actually had some very credible sources “on the record.”

Mr. Earnest will need to start living up to his name.

Editor’s Note: B. Jay is a former deputy White House press secretary to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He also headed the communications offices at the Republican National Committee, U.S. Department of Commerce, and Yale University. He is a former reporter and now is deputy managing director of APCO Worldwide’s Washington, D.C., office.