Updated 6:57 pm ET
The White House today held a secret meeting to try to influence journalists’ reporting on Benghazi.
It reportedly began at 12:45 pm ET and forced the regular, public briefing scheduled for 12:30 pm to be delayed until mid afternoon.
Let my try to explain what went on here and what I think about it. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on it too, since mine is very much an inside-the-Beltway perspective on this.
First of all, of course, yours truly was not invited. Only 14 news outlets were, presumably those judged by the White House to be the largest and most important.
The briefing was conducted on “deep background.” This means that reporters were allowed to use information they heard during the briefing, but not permitted to use actual quotes or say who briefed.
This is not particularly unusual in Washington. Reporters will go for this because, when people speak on deep background or just on background – in which case you still can’t name the speaker but you can use direct quotes – they tend to get better information for their readers and more frank discussion with their sources.
I know people hate this, but if sources only talked on the record, you wouldn’t know half of the interesting stuff you read in the press. What’s more, the cause of accountability would suffer because you couldn’t talk to anyone who wasn’t authorized to speak and feared retribution.
But the White House apparently also asked reporters to keep the meeting itself secret.
The White House should not hold large, secret meetings with reporters, and reporters should not agree to do them. The White House should not attempt to hide that it is trying to influence the press. And reporters should not be engaging in secret meetings at the White House. It’s just too contrary to the press’s mission of openness.
I realize these are judgements involving degree and not kind. Talking to someone on background creates a secret. But secret meetings at the White House to disseminate White House propaganda to the press – particularly a press corps already biased in favor of the White House – is, for me, going too far.
The secret of course got out and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney even addressed the meeting in his public briefing. Now, each of the reporters who were there should fess up so the public knows their reporting has been influenced by a “deep background” roundtable discussion in the bowels of the West Wing.
UPDATE: And one other point which Sportinlife brings up in the comment section. That White House officials are engaging in this very unusual procedure is strong evidence of something they would never admit publicly: They are getting nervous about this. And they may know privately that things are worse than they have so far let on.