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Conditions of Anonymity

A Commentary by Tony Blankley

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

There is a particular media conceit that, in the garb of purported impeccable disclosure, is in fact a license for news sources to market talking points.

A hilarious example of the breed can be found in an article by Anne E. Kornblut in the Sunday Washington Post. The article is about the White House's intended use of the bin Laden event and is titled "Bin Laden raid fits into Obama's 'big things' message."

The phrase in question is the italicized words in the following quote: "A senior administration official, who spoke on the conditions of anonymity to speak freely about internal thinking , said the White House is not developing a strategy to leverage the raid in other difficult arenas, such as the budget or debt-ceiling negotiations with the Republicans. And the official insisted it would not change the overall message or approach of the 2012 campaign, which has long been described as a campaign focused on the economy.

"Still, it will almost certainly help a president elected on 'hope' and 'change' to shift his next campaign in a new direction."

Of course, the entire point of the article was precisely the opposite of what the unnamed official said: that the White House staff, in fact, is itching to take political advantage of the bin Laden killing.

Indeed, the constant quotes of clumsy denials of political calculations by senior White House officials is the artful leitmotif of the entire article.

Admittedly, the senior official was merely following an old, regularly used Washington tactic: going on background not necessarily to speak the truth, but to spin the office talking point -- and make it sound like it is an inside revelation, rather than just a standard piece of propaganda for mass consumption.

While the Post, The New York Times and other such media regularly use the italicized phrase, in this instance, the entire article is a substantive refutation of the phrase. As a result, the phrase is actually misreporting facts observed by the reporter. (Let me emphasize, this is not the reporter's fault. It is the news outlet's policy and is enforced by their editors. The reporter has no say in such matters.)

In fact, other than the offending phrase, this is an exceptionally good piece of writing. The White House staff is not likely to be happy with a Washington Post article that explicitly contradicts the words quoted in the article by senior aides to the president on one of the most politically sensitive topics any White House has had to handle.

Consider the opening sentence of the article: "Advisers to President Obama are tiptoeing carefully around the political bounce he received after the successful raid on Osama. ..." As the article discloses, they are tiptoeing about as carefully as a drunken fat man at three in the morning (my phrase, not the reporter's).

David Axelrod, the President's top political adviser, is described in the article as "careful not to paint the raid as a personal victory for the President. It 'was not a political exercise, so I don't want to treat it as such,' he said."

But obviously, he was not careful enough to fool the Post reporter of this article, who a few paragraphs before that quote pointed out that "Obama is already stitching the victory into the broader tapestry of his 2012 reelection campaign. ... And although the White House advisers insist they are not incorporating the bin Laden raid into their political planning for 2012, they acknowledge it has the potential to do more than simply reshape his image as a decisive leader."

Articles like this tend to close with a kicker last line. Here, the closing line is a quote from the president's press secretary, Jay Carney: "I think that the president firmly believes that making the right policy decisions tends to be beneficial come political season, but for him, at least, political season is a long way off."

Given that the article's whole point was that the president's advisers are tripping over one another trying to take immediate political advantage of the event, Carney can't be pleased with the ironic tone implicit in his article-closing quote.

Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington. E-mail him at TonyBlankley@gmail.com.

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