When a journalist cites a “senior administration official” for some piece of information that is being provided anonymously, many readers probably think of Woodward and Bernstein meeting Deep Throat in a darkened parking garage somewhere. That, it seems to me, is what the journalist is hoping you’ll think of. And with some people, that makes the information seem more credible; with other people, less credible.
But what many people do not know is that the anonymous source is frequently a government insider who is speaking in a large, well-lit government office, surrounded by reporters whose questions he or she cheerfully answers. Jess Bravin calls attention to the phenomenon in today’s Wall Street Journal, wryly challenging his readers to see if they can identify the “senior administration official” who is quoted anonymously in this White House press release:
Let me just make one editorial comment here. I’ve seen some press reporting says, “Cheney went in to beat up on them, threaten them.” 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.
Why does the government do this? I’m not sure. Maybe in this particular case, the Vice President felt it would not be Vice Presidential to respond to this particular criticism personally. (Though I must say, the “senior administration official” quoted above goes on to make what seem to me to be newsworthy remarks about his recent meetings with Karzai and others in Afghanistan and Pakistan.)
But it is even harder for me to understand why the press willingly goes along with the whole ruse. They pretend they want their readers to know absolutely everything of importance, but in fact they actively conceal whether the speaker to whom they are referring is, say, one of many policy advisors with no real decision-making authority, or is instead the Vice President of the United States. If these are the watchdogs of our republic, then our republic is in real trouble.