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Cold Steele

Should reporters ever use quotes from political candidates on the condition of anonymity? Un-named sources are relied on so heavily in journalism today that I think it leaves most people distrustful of the information they're getting from the media. Whether it's telephone database programs suddenly turning up to be less than first reported or legislative maneuvering on the Hill, our news is filled with words nobody will claim. Yes, confidential sources are very important for several reasons, we're not re-hashing that at the moment. It's just that, when it comes to political campaigning, should we be cutting so much slack to those asking for our vote – and trust?

Some rather uncomplimentary comments aimed at President Bush and the Republican Party and attributed to an un-named GOP Senate candidate kicked off quite a guessing game earlier this week as every amateur detective scrambled to identify this apparent turncoat. Working on some clues dropped by the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, who originally carried the comments in his "Washington Sketch," it wasn't long before several names came to the fore – leaving those individual candidates running to deny ownership.

One of the more frequently-guessed sources was Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, who is the GOP nominee for the state's open Senate seat. As an African-American Republican running in a solidly Democratic state, it's not all that surprising Steele might have differences with his national party. But there are plenty of places chewing that over, I'm more interested for the moment in how this whole episode played out between Steele and the reporters he spoke to in the first place. Here's how Milbank described the "ground rules" for the get-together:

The candidate gave the luncheon briefing to nine reporters from newspapers, magazines and networks under the condition that he be identified only as a GOP Senate candidate. When he was pressed to go on the record, his campaign toyed with the idea but got cold feet. He was anxious enough to air his gripes but cautious enough to avoid a public brawl with the White House.
After acknowledging being the candidate in question, Steele turned fire on the press, claiming his comments were made "off the record." According to this article in the Baltimore Sun however, it's fairly obvious his campaign had no problems with Milbank's story initially, even signing off on the quotes being used. These sorts of ground rules can be tricky ("background" can mean slightly different things to different people), which is why it's always wise to clarify them at the outset. But this doesn't appear to be a case of miscommunication. Steele's "blame-the-press" attitude has Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher hitting back:
The Iraq war "didn't work." The Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina was "a monumental failure." Republicans in Congress have "lost our way."

Imagine the impact those comments would have made on Maryland's Senate race if Lt. Gov. Michael Steele had stood up in front of the cameras and presented himself as an independent Republican, someone who would go to Washington with his own ideas and the courage to go his own way.

Delivered straight up, Steele's remarks probably would have propelled him into the lead in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

Instead, Steele made his move to distance himself from his party -- after all, he's running in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 -- in a setting that reeks of politics as usual: a no-names, just-us-elite-insiders lunch with reporters in the back room of Charlie Palmer's steakhouse at the foot of Capitol Hill.

Now, there are a couple of possibilities I see here, neither of which make political journalists look so good. The first is that Steele truly did believe he was "off the record." What, then, would his purpose be of making the comments under those circumstances? To vent his spleen to a group of reporters whom he may never have even met before? Just a hunch, but I would say in that case, he would be trying to demonstrate an understanding of the climate which his campaign is operating under and impress upon them his more moderate self in the hopes that picture bled into the coverage. In other words, get the reporters to see you as moderate, and they'll cover you as such.

More likely, as has been hinted at elsewhere, Steele's campaign knew at least some of his sentiments would work their way into the news and be at least indirectly connected to him. Why not make those comments at a public press event, as Fisher suggested? Easy – this way he gets to both reach out to Maryland voters who are against the war, disapprove of the GOP record and would appreciate his comments (especially African-American voters) while at the same time keeping his conservative base from bolting by making it seem like the out-of-control press has done him wrong.

You'll notice Steele did not say the comments attributed to him were inaccurate, only that that he believed them to have be given off-the-record and taken out of context. He was out the very next day calling President Bush "my homeboy." Meanwhile, all those comments about what he sees as the failures of the Bush administration get more and more coverage.

It's hard to take situations like these and assign some sort of conspiratorial plan to them. Was this all a set-up by the Steele campaign, some elaborate plan to have it both ways? Most of the time things don't come together quite that neatly but it highlights the position journalists can put themselves in – that of enabling manipulation – true or not. Lunches or meetings between reporters, whether off-the-record, on-background or fully on-record, are about as common in Washington as traffic jams.

Reporters are just as eager as the politicians to sit down to what Fisher describes as "a setting that reeks of politics as usual" and engage in that "no-names, just-us-elite-insiders lunch." There is value in that for a journalist, but nobody is ever obligated to report on these gatherings. Marc Fisher, and probably many other journalists, are angry at Steele for making his comments to reporters anonymously, then blaming those reporters for using them. But my question is, why report the comments in the first place if the politician won't put his name to them?