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Background Briefings Irk W.H. Press

As Washington prepares for President Barack Obama’s first White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, members of the White House press corps are grumbling about a spate of background briefings by “senior administration officials” who can’t be quoted by name.

But will they do anything about it?

After a “senior administration official” briefed reporters on a conference call about Chrysler last week, the Associated Press’s Jennifer Loven circulated an email among her colleagues suggesting some kind of joint action to protest the use of not-for-attribution sessions.

“We’ve been concerned about the needless use of ‘on-background’ briefings when it comes to sharing straightforward information,” AP spokesman Paul Colford told POLITICO, adding that the AP had “relayed” its views “to other news organizations in Washington” and is “eager to work with them in addressing the issue.”

But when the White House held two more background briefings this week – one on the president’s budget, the other on Pakistan and Afghanistan — AP’s reporters and all the other usual suspects were there.

That doesn’t mean that reporters are happy with the background briefings. It’s just that they can’t afford to skip one out of protest when they know that a competitor might go without them.

“No one can risk walking out of it on principle,” said CBS radio correspondent Mark Knoller.

Knoller, who has reported on seven administrations, said that reporters have always been rankled by background briefing rules. While he acknowledgeds that background sourcing is sometimes necessary, he saidthat background briefings – which may occur in front of dozens of reporters – are “arbitrary” and “silly.”

New York Times reporter Peter Baker said that the background briefing rules are “usually unnecessary,” and that the press corps “should do more to stand up to them as often as we can.”

Added John F. Harris, POLITICO’s editor-in-chief: "What was true for previous administrations is true for this one: It's vastly and self-evidently preferable for readers for official briefings to be on the record."

Speaking on background because they’re not authorized to speak for their news organizations, several White House reporters told POLITICO that there’s increasing interest in a coordinated protest against background briefings.

Deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton was quick to note the irony. “It is unfortunate but not surprising that some members of the media would provide information for this piece — about background sourcing — only on the condition that their names not be used.”

Burton defended the White House, saying it has “lived up to the president’s high standard of transparency by holding an unprecedented number of detailed policy briefings often on the record and sometimes on background.”

In addition to the three not-for-attribution background briefings over the last two weeks, the White House has offered on-the-record briefings by OMB Director Peter Orszag, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Council Adviser Jim Jones, associate SBA administrator Eric Zarnikow and economic adviser Brian Deese — in addition to the daily, on-the-record briefings by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

But the administration has also used background briefings when the need for anonymity wasn’t exactly clear.

During Obama’s trip to the Summit of Americas in April, a “senior administration official” addressed the press corps in the morning on the condition that he not be identified by name — only to cover much of the same subject matter on TV later in the day.

And on Jan. 22, two “senior admiistration officials” briefed reporters on the new president’s executive orders. Later that same day, Gibbs – in his first White House press briefing – twice let slip the first name of one of the two officials.

“Are we allowed to repeat that?” asked Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Weisman.

Of course, the Obama administration isn’t the first to be criticized for using background briefings in arbitrary ways.

In February 2007, George W. Bush’s White House offered a background briefing with a “senior administration official” who took exception with the way he’d been characterized in the press.

“I've seen some press reporting says, 'Cheney went in to beat up on [the Pakistani government], threaten them,’” the senior administration official said. “That's not the way I work. I don't know who writes that, or maybe somebody gets it from some source who doesn't know what I'm doing, or isn't involved in it. But the idea that I'd go in and threaten someone is an invalid misreading of the way I do business."

Although the transcript made it obvious that the background briefer was Vice President Dick Cheney, his office still refused to waive the not-for-attribution shield.

Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary in the Clinton administration, said that the strongest argument for background briefings is in the case of diplomacy, where it goes against protocol to have an administration official speaking on behalf of the United States following a meeting with world leaders—an argument that might have applied in the “Summit of Americas” case if the background briefer hadn’t gone on to reveal himself on TV.

Outside of that context, McCurry said that briefers should go on the record.

“When people read this anonymous source stuff, they discount it,” he said. “Anonymous sources to them just become part of the political game in Washington.”

The background-briefing question came up when Gibbs met recently with Washington bureau chiefs to discuss the costs of White House travel.

USA Today’s Washington bureau chief, Susan Page, who was present at the meeting, wrote in an e-mail afterward that “the proliferation of background briefings, at the White House and elsewhere, is a serious issue.”

“There are a few occasions when holding a briefing on background is justified,” Page continued, “but in my experience, most of them could and should be done on the record.”

But for Page, like most veteran White House reporters, it was a familiar complaint; she was among a group of bureau chiefs—led by then-AP bureau chief Sandy Johnson—who met with Bush press secretary Scott McClellan about background briefings in late April 2005.

The meeting worked. McClellan said it prompted him to do away with background briefings through the rest of his tenure, which came to an end in May 2006. And indeed, a Lexis-Nexis search shows just one background briefing during this period; McClellan said it happened while he was on vacation.

“I didn’t see any really good reason or justification for the larger briefings to be on background,” he said. “When you step back and think about it more, there’s really no good reason.”

But the background briefings returned after McClellan left the White House – as did the charge that the rules can be arbitrary or illogical.

In 2007, a reporter from the Russian state news service was allowed to attend a background briefing on President Bush’s summit with Vladimir Putin – meaning that the Russian government could know the identity of the briefer even though reporters were prohibited from telling their American readers.