Each afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs briefs the press corps on the news of the day. The reporters ask questions and Gibbs answers as best he can, all while the cameras are rolling. But oftentimes, far away from the spotlight of the cameras, a member of the administration briefs the press under the pseudonym of a “senior administration official.” These are known as background briefings – no cameras allowed, and the official cannot be quoted by name. Despite protest by the White House press corps, these background briefings have become a time-honored tradition.
“In an accountability and transparency sense, they ought to be on-the-record,” said ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton. “We often will say, ‘wait a minute, can’t we have this on-the-record?’”
Like on January 9th 1994, the press corps asked if the briefing could be on the record. The answer: “No, this is, once again, your friendly Senior Administration Official.” When asked why they couldn’t go on the record, the response was “because that’s the only name I know to answer to after all these months.”
Of the past three administrations, Bill Clinton’s was most fond of background briefings. During his eight years in office, White House officials held 173 background briefings. George W. Bush’s administration held 48. Obama’s administration has held 18 thus far.
So what topics are deemed so secretive that the administration insists it must only be discussed on background? Is it the September 11th attacks? The BP oil crisis?
Much to the contrary, the majority of background briefings are about a president’s meeting with a foreign leader, or a trip abroad.
“If a president is going on a trip, you want to give information on a country and the issues involved,” said Martha Kumar, a Towson professor who studies presidential communications. “They want to give people a sense of what’s going on in the country.”
What the press corps can’t understand is why they have to be on background.
“Background briefings themselves can be very helpful,” said Compton. “They give us volumes of information that help us make a fuller, richer story. But I think where it becomes ridiculous is when someone senior says something valuable and wants to remain anonymous.”
CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller said the most annoying part about background briefings is that the “senior administration official” will often go on-the-record only a few hours after insisting they be quoted on-background.
“There are plenty of occasions where they give the press a background briefing and then the same officials go on CNN and say the same things,” said Knoller. “It’s ridiculous.”
According to Compton, David Axelrod, senior advisor to the President, often does this.
“We’ve been given background briefings, and then minutes later he is on the lawn saying the same thing to CNN. I think the higher up you are in the food chain at the White House, the greater your obligation to speak on the record.”
Last May, when the Obama administration held three background briefings in one week, an Associated Press reporter urged the rest of the press corps through email to protest the briefings, but to no avail.
So get used to the words “according to a senior administration official” in the news until an administration is brave enough to buck the trend, or the press corps is brave enough to protest.