In the lead story of its Feb. 20 edition (" 'Potent' Threat to U.S. Lives On"), USA Today quoted "a Pentagon official, who asked that his name be withheld," saying, "We view al-Qaida as still a very potent threat." Who are those anonymous "officials," and how do the papers get to them?
Sometimes specific reporters cajole unnamed officials into talking, but the Pentagon often delivers them and their quotations en masse to the press at "backgrounders," as it did for this USA Today story. The Pentagon Web site defines backgrounders as "news briefings or news interviews for which the spokesman is not identified by name." The State Department and White House hold similar briefings, as do the various agencies and departments, and the contents of some of them eventually make their way online. But the Pentagon promptly posts every transcript of its anonymous briefings.
Spokesperson Lt. Col. Ken McClellan explains that the Pentagon uses backgrounders when it wants an in-house expert to speak on an issue but wants to deflect attention from the identify of the speaker himself, often because the briefing is given by somebody in a sensitive position, for example, an intelligence officer. The briefers aren't supposed to tell reporters their names and are instructed to introduce themselves simply as "senior defense officials" (or, "defense officials" if they're more middle-management).
But sometimes they give themselves away. Check out this snippet from a backgrounder on drones:
Senior Defense Official: Good afternoon, I'm—(name and identification deleted)—for tactical UAVs.
Q: Strike that.
Senior Defense Official: Oh. OK. Sorry about that. (Laughter.) In any case, I am—(briefer identity deleted)—for tactical UAVs …(laughter).
The Pentagon has hosted three backgrounders this year, one on the military's proposed budget, one on the Horn of Africa, and one on the continuing al-Qaida threat, which the USA Today story above quoted.
How do the media deal with the institutionally induced anonymity? News stories often make no mention that the prized anonymous quote harvested for the story was given in front of a gaggle of reporters. For example, after the budget backgrounder, the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Fox News Channel, and others all cited the senior defense official without noting the context. But give the Associated Press a gold star for its treatment of a story out of the Horn of Africa backgrounder; it cited "a defense official, briefing reporters Friday on the condition of anonymity."