Power, Anonymous Sources & Boot-licking

by Laura Snedeker

Q: Since when is the Vice President of the United States anonymous?
A: Since he said so. (But you didn’t hear it from him.)

When reporters boarded Air Force Two for the flight to Afghanistan last week, they were briefed on Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf by a senior administration official. Well, sort of.

They were really briefed by Dick Cheney disguised as a “Senior Administration Official,” according to The Washington Post. The official reason for Cheney’s half-hearted deception is supposedly that he could not, for “diplomatic reasons” discuss his conversation with Musharraf.

Think of it as testing the boundaries of control over the press corps. Cheney didn’t really care whether or not that the quotes were attributed to him; if there was really an issue of appeasing Musharraf while the United States and Pakistan worked out a deal on Pakistan’s role in eliminating the Taliban, he would have appointed someone else to speak for him. Why use the Veep when any relatively anonymous government official will do?

This administration has a particular fascination with seeing just how much they can manipulate the press. Every reporter gathered around the vice president must have known they were being played like a harmonica, but they went along with it because that’s how business is conducted. No one wants to lose his access.

But Cheney’s desire to remain on background only further undercuts the use of anonymous sources in journalism. Government and corporate whistleblowers in the United States and in foreign countries often make their continued anonymity the price of valuable information. Even legitimate anonymous sources are distrusted to some degree because they cannot be held accountable by the public for what they say.

But Dick Cheney isn’t a whistleblower. Neither is he a government insider who might find himself facing discipline for discussing private diplomatic matters. He’s the Vice President of the United States. What did the reporters on that plane think: Bush might give him a stern lecture?

This begs the question: How far will journalists go to appease the Bush administration? How many other “Senior Administration Officials” have demanded to speak on background because they could, and not because they needed to? Who are these officials, and what have they said?

Some have come out against what happened on Air Force Two; I can only hope that the phones of the seven journalists who went along with Cheney’s little game are ringing off the hook with calls from their colleagues demanding to know why they would degrade themselves so.

I can’t help wondering if the vice president meant for this to come out. It makes a great story, doesn’t it? Headline: “Vice President Demands Anonymity, Journalists Lick Boots.”

(Editorial graphic courtesy of DarkBlack and used with permission. For more material like this, please see DarkBlack's blog. To see an editorial cartoon with a viewpoint on the vice president's recent trip, please see the work of Nick Anderson of The Houston Chronicle.)

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