Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

 Posted July 15, 2003

The games newspapers shouldn't play
by Dick Rogers, public editor of the San Francisco Chronicle

A "SENIOR administration official" paid a visit to The Chronicle not long
ago. I'd tell you the name, but that would be wrong. The paper agreed in
advance not to identify this top White House representative. A deal is a
deal, so I'm duty-bound to clam up.

What's not so certain is whether the deal was good for readers.

There are valid reasons to let someone talk on background. Sometimes
sources need protection: People lose their jobs for talking to newspapers.
They get harassed, assaulted, even shot. That wasn't likely in this case.
Senior administration officials don't drop by newspapers to rat out their

And just try to get past the layers of security.

In this case, the paper had two choices: Accept the offer on White House
terms, or miss a chance to quiz someone with first-hand knowledge of
administration policies.

Editorial Page Editor John Diaz said he wrestled with the decision,
meeting with editorial-page colleagues and senior editors. In seven years
on the job, rarely has Diaz granted anonymity to visitors to the editorial
board. There is, he said, a presumption that interviews are on the record.
Desite his misgivings, he saw an opening to test the paper's editorial
position on the Iraq war, the Mideast crisis and other important world
events. He and his colleagues could challenge the administration and at
the same time challenge their own assumptions.

"Here was really an opportunity for us . . . to have a better grasp of the
administration's thinking," he said.

For readers, the benefits were less tangible. Because the senior
administration official would not be named and because so little
information came out of the meeting, the paper didn't even write a story.

The official's comments were largely predictable and consistent with
previous administration statements. These were some of the main themes:

  • Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is hampered by a weak security
    force, reducing his ability to exercise leadership.
  • The Bush administration knew that Hamas and other terrorist
    organizations would be an impediment to the peace process in the Middle
  • Some settlements in the occupied territories must be dismantled and
    others should remain under Israeli control.
  • There was plenty of reason to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass
  • Part of the reason the United States hasn't found WMDs is that the
    program was designed for concealment.
  • The dispute with North Korea is not just a matter of us against them.
    It's them against the world.

If none of this seems even vaguely new, it's probably because you've read
it before. Here [in The Chronicle]. On the record. Or you've heard it on the radio. Or you've
seen it on TV.

Readers may receive little from such deals, but senior administration
officials stand to gain a lot. These are chances to spread the pro-
administration gospel, perhaps to float trial balloons -- all without fear
that anyone in the White House would be held directly accountable.
By their commanding presence and often disarming style, they hope to
co-opt journalists into an insiders' club where skepticism takes a

The dilemma isn't unique to The Chronicle. Senior administration officials
are a ubiquitous bunch. In a recent one-week period, unnamed White House
representatives popped up in 112 stories in major newspapers and
television networks.

It's not unique to the Bush administration, either. During the same period
four years ago, when Bill Clinton was in the White House, a "senior
administration official" appeared 55 times in major media outlets. Had
Clinton been embroiled in a deeply divisive military conflict at the time,
the number might have been higher.

The loss of accountability comes at a cost. In the broadest sense, it
denies the public the chance to assess its leadership and to participate
in the democratic process. History suffers when we can't look back on
important times and attach real people to official words. More narrowly,
the willingness of some of the nation's largest and most influential
newspapers to let officials slide lessens the media's credibility and
fosters political gamesmanship.

Newspapers across the country are too quick to give the White House a free
pass on such briefings. When they do, they make it harder for the next
newspaper to say no. More newspapers should hold their ground; The
would be a good place to start.

What do you think? Have your say in the coffee house:

Dick Rogers is The Chronicle's readers' representative. E-mail him at
Copyright 2003 SF Chronicle, July 14, 2003. Republished with permission.




What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


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