By Karl Grossman
Increasingly, the federal government has been having officials speak anonymously to reporters. And the press has become most accepting of this.
Having officials identified only as a “a senior department official” or “high official” and the like is a way for top and lesser officials to say things without having to take responsibility for what they say. Also, not identified by name, they can exaggerate and make claims they’d be reticent to make if they were personally identified. They can use media to float trial balloons.
One of the nice things about Suffolk County government is that this doesn’t go on here. When elected and appointed officials say things, they nearly always do it by name.
About press conferences by anonymous federal officials, “I’m dismayed that there is not greater openness in government at the federal level,” comments W. Michael Pitcher, public information officer for the Suffolk County Legislature. He is a former reporter and editor.
Occasionally, he said, a Suffolk official will provide information to a journalist about, for example, a political aspect of an issue, and not do it by name. But generally “it’s virtually entirely up-front” when county officials talk to reporters. “There can’t be too much transparency in government,” said Mr. Pitcher last week.
On the federal level, not only has U.S. officialdom long been dealing with reporters using anonymous officials, but this system is now displayed for all to see in postings on the Internet by the U.S. State Department. Apparently the federal government believes the U.S. public will accept this system, too.
Placed online on November 10, for instance, was a State Department “Background Briefing” in Hawaii involving Secretary Hillary Clinton meeting there with the foreign ministers of China, Japan and Australia. The press conference in Honolulu opened, according to the online transcript, with the “moderator” introducing a person “hereafter known as Senior State Department Official.”
The “Senior State Department Official” then made a presentation that included an announcement that Ms. Clinton had “three very good bilateral interactions with [the] foreign ministers.” If this was so, why couldn’t the “Senior State Department Official” be identified?
Another, similar State Department briefing online is about — of all things — open government. It involved a meeting in September in New York that included President Obama. This transcript opens with the “moderator” — even the government PR people who run these events aren’t identified — stating: “Alright everybody. We are here to talk about tomorrow’s Open Government Partnership high-level meeting, which the President will participate in. We have two senior Administration officials …The first is” — his or her name is omitted and, instead, in brackets, is “Senior Administration Official One.” And the “moderator” continues: “The second is” — again the person’s name is omitted and the transcript says — “Senior Administration Official Two.”
“Okay, with that, Senior Official Number One, take it away,” says the “moderator.”
There’s been little complaining about the system by the media. But in an article in Foreign Policy earlier this year, Josh Rogin wrote: “Ever get the feeling that the Obama administration abuses the use of anonymity when offering up ‘senior administration officials’ to speak about policy on ‘background?’” He related that “traditionally, anonymity was granted by news organizations to officials so they would be free to talk about sensitive matters without fear or attribution …But these days ‘background’ briefings are the rule, not the exception, and the demand for anonymity is sometimes so unnecessary and so silly.”
On the other hand, “in Suffolk and I think on all of Long Island, unequivocally, there is transparency in government, “ says Drew Biondo, former communications director for the Suffolk DA’s office and now spokesperson for State Senator Kenneth LaValle. “I don’t think any elected official here would insist on being anonymous in addressing a gathering of reporters.”
Good, and hopefully it will stay that way. Government by anonymous officials is the opposite of responsibility and transparency. The press should not engage in co-dependency with officialdom in this game which compromises open and accountable government.