The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, which I attended last week, is an astonishing spectacle — a unique combination of journalists, government officials and celebrities. Amid the laughter and the conviviality, however, there is an uneasy undercurrent: Many journalists are disturbed that outside of an annual dinner, they cannot get a lot of access to those same officials.
Everyone should agree that in reporting on the workings of government, journalists are engaging in indispensable work. Because their job is to inform the public — and hold officials accountable — it’s more than understandable if they object when their questions are met with silence, bureaucratic abstractions or unresponsive talking points. The Constitution itself recognizes not merely “the freedom of speech,” but also and separately the freedom “of the press.”
But when they are able to pose questions, what do Washington journalists want to know?
Here is a guide to four common requests, based in large part on my experience in government, that can make public officials reluctant to engage with reporters or provide helpful answers to them. (I do not deal here with the Freedom of Information Act and related transparency questions, which are obviously important but would require a separate discussion.)
1. “Please disclose an important policy decision before it is finalized or announced.”
Needless to say, it takes a long time to figure out how to handle a complicated problem, whether it involves the environment, housing, homeland security or something else. Journalists often want a hint in advance. Officials usually have to dodge the question. They might not yet know the ultimate decision; often, things are in flux. If they do know where things are headed, it’s almost never their place to make the announcement ahead of time.
2. “Please tell us what happened in internal conversations, including conflicts among high-level advisers.”
Washington reporters often want to know the internal details. Who is in what camp? Who favors a strong approach on same-sex marriage or climate change, and who wants to proceed more cautiously? What is the spectrum of opinion within the administration? Are there good guys and bad guys? Who said what to whom, and when, and how?
Most officials don’t want to answer those questions, because they prefer — and are expected — to treat their colleagues’ confidential remarks as confidential. It’s not exactly collegial, or even honorable, to do otherwise, certainly not until a lot of time has passed.
3. “Please say something spicy about the president, or at least a high-level adviser.”
Washington reporters sometimes try to get officials, on or off the record, to badmouth their bosses or their colleagues — or at least to say something intriguing or controversial, which will make news. On this count, reporters are usually quite subtle. They ask about particular issues and trends.
Most officials dislike these questions for one reason: They are loyal. If they have disagreements or concerns, they prefer to express them internally. (It is true that some officials like to leak, sometimes in order to advance their own personal agendas, and they do not need much coaxing from reporters. But that’s not exactly honorable, either.)
4. “Please respond to some recent allegation so we can highlight it and explore who is right or who is telling the truth.”
This is a frequent request, made when critics or members of the opposing political party allege that the administration has made mistakes or engaged in misdeeds. It is perfectly legitimate, and possibly even necessary, for Washington reporters to seek an official response to such allegations. In some cases, a response is appropriate. But if the allegation is baseless, officials may have no interest in responding to it, because any response — even a denial — might well spark more discussion and serve to ensure that the allegation will get greater attention.
Most of the time, public officials are likely to be reluctant to respond to any of these requests — above all, the first three. Journalists are sometimes exasperated by that reluctance. But they shouldn’t be, because silence can be reasonable or even mandatory. A lack of transparency is one thing; a refusal to breach confidentiality is quite another.
It is also important to see that administration officials are members of a team. Outside of special circumstances, it’s not appropriate for them to go rogue by speaking without some kind of authorization.
Washington’s correspondents do not, of course, want merely to “make news”; they are doing democracy’s work. When they are stymied, they get frustrated. Fair enough. But the interests of those correspondents are not always identical to the interests of the American public.
Cass R. Sunstein, the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, is the Robert Walmsley university professor at Harvard Law School and a Bloomberg View columnist.