Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Just Say No to Background Briefings

A refreshing tale of how real journalists operate
Setting - July 9, 2004:  Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz sits down with local reporters after attending a military ceremony and giving a speech in Omaha, Nebraska.

Wolfowitz's public affairs officer, Bill Turenne, began by asking that Wolfowitz's comments be attributed to a "senior Defense Department official." The Kansas City Star's [Scott] Canon took immediate issue with these ground rules. "I was less heroic than you might imagine," he says in a telephone interview.

Canon politely explained to Wolfowitz and Turenne that the conversation would be of no professional value to him if he couldn't name Wolfowitz as the source of the remarks. There just wouldn't be much use at his paper for such blind quotery. "My complaint was less about the practice in general than that it would be a waste of [Wolfowitz's] time."

[William Petroski of the Des Moines Register], who wrote a short account of the incident for the Register, told the deputy secretary that going on background was not the way local reporters did their business. Canon advanced the point that no reader was going to be fooled by the protective coloration of "a senior Defense Department official" in a news story. Wolfowitz was easily the only senior Defense Department official in the city, the state, and maybe the region that day.

Hello, Washington Post and New York Times reporters.  Are you taking notes?