A curiously sourced story

Desirée Rogers, in White House kitchen, is to Michelle Obama's immediate right.

The New York Times fronts an article by Peter Baker on the ugly departure of White House social secretary Desirée Rogers. Go ahead and call it a classic “Who cares?” story, but I’m shallow enough to admit it’s the only one I’ve read in the Times so far today.

What really hit me, though, was this:

And while she [Rogers] is unwilling to discuss her story publicly, several associates shared her account in the belief that her side has been lost in the swirl of hearings, backbiting and paparazzilike coverage.

Go ahead and read the story. I have no doubt that Baker did, indeed, interview “several associates.” But it also seems crystal-clear that Rogers sat down with Baker and gave him an extensive interview, all of it premised on an agreement that she would not be quoted either by name or on a not-for-attribution basis. I believe that’s called “deep background” — not that there’s any agreement on what the term means.

The whole point to such an exercise is to provide Rogers with plausible deniability, and I don’t think Baker did that. Of course, assuming Baker stuck to their agreement, that’s Rogers’ problem, not his. Still, from an ethical point of view it’s at least worth chewing over.

A final caveat: I am, of course, guessing at what happened. It’s possible that Baker got Rogers’ side solely on the basis of interviews with her friends, and that she herself refused to speak with him. But that’s not how it looks from here.

White House photo by Joyce Boghosian. More information at Wikimedia Commons.

11 thoughts on “A curiously sourced story

  1. L.K. Collins

    So what’s your point Dan?

    Deep background interviews? Roger’s departure? Baker’s lackk clarity (intentional or not)?

    Seem’s as if you cared enough to write something.

  2. BP Myers

    Funny, I don’t see it that way at all. What I find surprising is the number of people who DID go on the record, most surprising the positive comment from Emmanuel, a huge get.

    But the bottom line is (regardless of the good job she may have done) she was unqualified for the position, and her constant presence in the media did not help her cause.

    Much like a baseball umpire, you’ll know the White House social secretary is doing their job when nobody knows their name.

  3. Jerry Ackerman

    Thanks for the AJR link. Usually I asked the sources to define what they thought they thought their “conditions” meant. I am glad to know I was not alone in my confusion.

  4. BP Myers

    Didn’t even look at the AJR link until @Jerry mentioned it. Stunned that there’s no agreement what these terms mean.

    Most “professions” have agreed upon standards of nomenclature.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @BP: And I would be the first to tell you that journalism is not a profession. Strictly defined, the First Amendment would make it impossible.

  5. tobe berkovitz

    I understand the interest in the journalistic practices behind the story, but the real story is the continuing collapse of the “no drama Obama” machine. Part of what made the 2008 campaign so flawless (besides the incompetence of the McCain campaign, collapse of the economy, and the Obama cheer leading of the MSM) was the code of silence and lack of egos of the core pros running the show. Nothing like moving inside the beltway to digress to the typical infighting and backstabbing that is endemic to campaigns and government politicians.

  6. Andre Mayer

    If the Times still had a real society section, they wouldn’t have to run stuff like this on Page 1.

  7. BP Myers

    @Dan said: And I would be the first to tell you that journalism is not a profession.

    Heh. Let’s make that a BTP topic. I wanna see Callie go ballistic.

    But you’re right, of course. And a quick Google reveals Hunter S. Thompson agrees.

  8. Jack Sullivan

    There are some publications that may present a story with the backdrop you suggest, Dan, but I don’t see the Times being one of them. The rules they put in place after the Jayson Blair scandal and the regimen reporters have to go through to justify and explain their unnamed sources would prevent that, I assume. If he said he talked with her but giving her cover in a dishonest manner, it never would have flown. Just a guess here is Rogers declined to talk to Baker but offered some names of friends and/or supporters and said something to the effect, they know the story and you can take what they say to the bank, sort of a preconfirmation. Nothing journalistically, ethically or morally wrong with that and it happens fairly regularly. Not everything is obfuscation in this business.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Jack: I don’t think Baker was being dishonest at all. In fact, he was pretty transparent about it. And here he is in his big Rahm Emanuel profile, doing more or less the same thing:

      “Emanuel, who declined to talk to me on the record for this article, generally shrugs off most of the commentary, scorning armchair critics who haven’t spent time in the White House or Congress actually trying to accomplish something.”

      If Emanuel had declined to talk with Baker, period, then Baker would have written that. If Rogers had refused to talk with Baker, then he wouldn’t have written that she has declined to talk “publicly.” You don’t use qualifiers unless you need them.

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