"Background Briefings" Now The White House Norm

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

It's not plagiarism, but most if not all the news stories on President Obama's selection of a Supreme Court nominee quoted the same unnamed White House officials.

Even before Mr. Obama formally disclosed his intention to nominate federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor, White House reporters were e-mailed invitations to a "background briefing in the Roosevelt Room with senior administration officials." It would take place shortly after the president's announcement.

On one condition, the officials were ready to answer questions about the choice and how Mr. Obama came to make it. The condition: that reporters don't disclose the official's names.

It's a very routine practice. And since Mr. Obama took office, the White House has staged "background briefings" before or after most major announcements. For example:

  • The evening before the president announced new fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

  • Two days before Pres. Obama met for the first time with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

  • The day before the president announced new budget cuts

  • Ninety minutes before Mr. Obama announced a bankruptcy plan for Chrysler

  • Before and after his meetings with leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago

But the practice of using anonymous "senior administration officials" to convey information to groups of reporters didn't start with the current White House.

Checking my files for Mr. Bush's second term, I could find at least 24 such "background briefings" by "senior administration officials." Different people, same title.

It's been a routine practice to one degree or another since I started covering this beat during the presidency of Gerald Ford.

It's a practice that rubs reporters the wrong way because it compels us to withhold information from readers, viewers and listeners. You can better assess the significance of a quote if you know who said it.

And oft-times, some officials conducting "background briefings" are less "senior" than others. Reporters know – but have agreed not to tell you.

Adding insult to injury, soon after a "background briefing," some of the same "senior administration officials" abandon their cloaks of anonymity and appear live on the cable news channels under their true identities.

I'm honor-bound not to tell you names of the two senior officials who briefed reporters yesterday on the Sotomayor nomination. But I can tell you that later in the day, Senior Adviser to the President David Axelrod appeared on CNN, Fox, MSNBC and PBS. And you won't be surprised to learn that Axelrod said much the same things that one of the senior officials said in the "background briefing" earlier in the day.

That too, often happened with officials in prior administrations.

At the start of yesterday's "background briefing," a number of reporters objected to the ground rules, and asked that the officials speak on-the-record. The request was repeatedly turned down. That now happens before every "background briefing."

Should you, as a consumer of news, care? You probably have other concerns that weigh more heavily on your mind. But you should know that the practice takes place. A lot.

Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here:

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.