White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Monday criticized a Washington Post story for its reliance on anonymous sourcing. His swift rebuke of the Post's reporting provoked a frenzy from White House reporters.
“The lede of that story is hooked entirely to anonymous sources,” Earnest insisted. “That's a fact.”
McClatchy's Anita Kumar fired back at a visibly perturbed Earnest, who pointed towards the Washington Post's conspicuous absence from the day's briefing as evidence of the merit of his point. “You criticize anonymous sources but we have anonymous sources from you all every day,” Kumar said, adding, “How can you criticize that when that's basically all you give us every day?”
In a letter to President Obama in early July, the Society of Professional Journalists levied the same complaint, writing “When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title ?spokesperson.' ” The letter was signed by representatives of 38 journalism groups.
Earnest clarified that he did not mean to suggest the story should not have run. Instead, he urged reporters to give less weight to quotes and data released to them under conditions of anonymity. “What I think is important is that greater weight should be granted to those who are willing to put a face and a name with specific claims,” he said.
The day’s press conference concluded moments before an off-the-record call with White House officials about a job training report was scheduled to start. Background or anonymous policy calls with journalists are a regular White House practice.
The Associated Press’s Julie Pace seized on the contradiction in Earnest’s position. “So Josh, would you commit then when you have situations like today’s call, which is people picked specifically by the White House to roll out a policy of the White House, would you commit to having those people speak on the record?”
“White House calls on White House policy should be on the record," added CBS' Major Garrett. Earnest promised to review Garrett’s proposal on a case by case basis.
The Post’s David Nakamura, who wrote the story that spurred Monday’s heated exchanges, took to Twitter to respond to Earnest’s frustration:
Nakamura's indignation was expressed by others. Dylan Byers, Politico's resident media maven, responded to Earnest with a headline reading: “Not The Onion: White House press secretary criticizes anonymous sourcing.”
As the briefing enjoyed, Earnest bade reporters a good afternoon.
“And enjoy the afternoon call today,” he added.