Newsweek granted anonymity to White House aides praising Bush

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

Notwithstanding Newsweek guidelines on the use of anonymous sources, a December 19 piece in the magazine featured four different quotes and statements attributed to anonymous White House aides or friends of the president praising or defending him.

An article in the December 19 edition of Newsweek by assistant managing editor Evan Thomas and senior White House correspondent Richard Wolffe featured numerous quotes and statements attributed to anonymous White House aides praising and defending President Bush. The piece is often critical -- the authors wrote, "Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history" -- but they quoted unnamed Bush aides and "White House officials" four times defending the president's policies and praising Bush's sense of humor.

Amid the controversy caused by Newsweek's retraction in May of an anonymously sourced story on alleged instances of Quran abuse at U.S. terrorist detention facilities, Newsweek published "A Letter to Our Readers" by chairman and editor-in-chief Richard M. Smith in its May 30 issue, in which Smith articulated new guidelines for the magazine's use of unnamed sources:

We will raise the standards for the use of anonymous sources throughout the magazine. Historically, unnamed sources have helped to break or advance stories of great national importance, but overuse can lead to distrust among readers and carelessness among journalists. As always, the burden of proof should lie with the reporters and their editors to show why a promise of anonymity serves the reader. From now on, only the editor or the managing editor, or other top editors they specifically appoint, will have the authority to sign off on the use of an anonymous source.

We will step up our commitment to help the reader understand the nature of a confidential source's access to information and his or her reasons for demanding anonymity. As they often are now, the name and position of such a source will be shared upon request with a designated top editor. Our goal is to ensure that we have properly assessed, on a confidential basis, the source's credibility and motives before publishing and to make sure that we characterize the source appropriately. The cryptic phrase "sources said" will never again be the sole attribution for a story in NEWSWEEK.

Notwithstanding these guidelines, Thomas and Wolffe only repeated their sources' purported reasons for requiring anonymity. The writers made no further effort to explain "why a promise of anonymity serves the reader."

Thomas and Wolffe granted anonymity to a "White House aide" who attacked Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA) as "a lost cause" in response to Murtha's call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. The aide also defended the president and "dismissed the notion that Bush is isolated or out of touch." According to the article, the aide "refused to be identified for fear of antagonizing the president":

A White House aide, who like virtually all White House officials (in this story and in general) refused to be identified for fear of antagonizing the president, says that Murtha was a lost cause anyway and dismisses the notion that Bush is isolated or out of touch. Still, the complaints don't just come from Democrats: Sen. Richard Lugar [IN], Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointedly told reporters that Bush needs to "have much more of a cadre of people in both houses, from both parties" visiting the White House "very frequently." Lugar cited Bill Clinton as the model.

Thomas and Wolffe went on to quote "White House officials" and "one of [Bush's] closest friends" anonymously praising the president:

White House officials, as well as one of his closest friends (also speaking anonymously so as not to complicate relations with the president), say that Bush remains sure that he is on the proper course in Iraq and that ultimately he will be vindicated by history. The president may be right. The Iraqi elections next week could produce a government that survives the insurgency and establishes the first (albeit shaky and not quite Western style) democracy in an Arab state -- even if that looks like a long haul by today's light. With an improving economy, Bush's popularity could well rebound. Washington pendulums always swing; Bush's polls appear to have bottomed out and are rising, at least slightly.

Thomas and Wolffe later disguised the identity of a presidential aide defending Bush's "historic mission" to reform Social Security:

What Bush actually hears and takes in, however, is not clear. And whether his advisers are quite as frank as they claim to be with the president is also questionable. Take Social Security, for example. One House Republican, who asked not to be identified for fear of offending the White House, recalls a summertime meeting with congressmen in the Roosevelt Room at which Bush enthusiastically talked up his Social Security reform plan. But the plan was already dead -- as everyone except the president had acknowledged. Bush seemed to have no idea. "I got the sense that his staff was not telling him the bad news," says the lawmaker. "This was not a case of him thinking positive. He just didn't have any idea of the political realities there. It was like he wasn't briefed at all." (Bush was not clueless, says an aide, but pushing his historic mission.)

Thomas and Wolffe then anonymously quoted a Bush aide praising the president's use of humor as "a tool and sometimes a weapon":

Bush, too, can be funny; his humor is Preppy Putdown, not gentle and corny, if sometimes off-color, like [Ronald] Reagan's. "It's the difference between Eureka and Yale," says an old Reagan hand. It's also a matter of condence [sic]. Reagan knew he was the best entertainer in the room. To be sure, Bush can be self-deprecating. Joking about his Council on Foreign Relations speech, Bush suggested to his speechwriters that, as a gag, he should hold up a copy of Foreign Affairs, the council's worthy, dry publication, and say, "I tried to read it once but the print was too small and there weren't enough pictures." (Bush decided against using the quip, considering the speech too much of a serious event.) But humor is a tool and sometimes a weapon for Bush. "He uses humor to disarm people and get a read on them," said a senior aide who wouldn't be identified talking about his boss. "You can tell a lot about a person in how they react to a joke."

At no point did Thomas and Wolffe explain why sources who were praising and defending the president feared his knowing who they were. Neither did they explain how readers were served by having praise of Bush from subordinates and friends conveyed anonymously.

The article also featured a number of anonymous quotes from staffers of Republican members of Congress and prior administrations criticizing Bush and his subordinates.

Posted In
Government, The Presidency & White House
Stories/Interests
Propaganda/Noise Machine
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