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A Look At The Relationship Between White House Sources And The Press

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Here's a scenario that unfolds just about every day here in the nation's capital. An administration official agrees to talk to reporters to take our questions but only - only - on condition that we do not quote him or her by name. This is the Washington tradition of the background briefing. And it is coming under new scrutiny after President Trump accused The New York Times over the weekend of making up phony sources who don't exist when the source in question was in fact a White House official briefing a big group of reporters, including NPR, in the White House briefing room.

Now, for some perspective on this we have called Mike McCurry, who served as White House press secretary under Bill Clinton. Hey there.

MIKE MCCURRY: Hello there.

KELLY: What does briefing on background allow you as an administration official to do that you could not do on the record?

MCCURRY: Well, there are sometimes cloaks of anonymity that people want because they want not to be associated with a truth that they are telling. That's a despairing thing because we want to know, who are the people who are providing us information from our government, and who are they? But there are some legitimate times when you need to be under that cloak of anonymity. I'll tell you two of them that I can think of.

One is when you are really trying to provide some context and background to important administration decisions. And the second one is a more interesting one, which is a point that Ambassador Dennis Ross made to me. He was our incomparable Middle East negotiator. And he said, you know, I can't brief on the record because if I brief on the record, then everything that he has said is interpreted as a statement of policy by the United States government.

KELLY: Should reporters push back harder against background briefings, say thank you, White House official, but no thanks? Talk on the record, or we're out.

MCCURRY: You know, when I was at the White House, the Associated Press adamantly took the position they would not participate in these kinds of background briefings because they just thought it was wrong.

KELLY: Was there a specific instance that prompted that?

MCCURRY: There were several. It was particularly related to when you were traveling on Air Force One. And there was an occasion in which I brought President Clinton back. And I said, OK, he's going to be here, but we want this to be on background. And the...

KELLY: So you put the president himself on background?

MCCURRY: I put the president himself on background. And it was a very controversial thing because I got asked afterwards, well, how can we use this material because it's the president? And I said, why don't you refer to it as someone who's deeply familiar with the president's thinking? And...

KELLY: OK. But, I mean, were you able to say that with a straight face (laughter)?

MCCURRY: I said it with a straight face. But, you know, in retrospect, it was not fair to the consumers of the information because they needed to know this is actually the president who's saying these things. So this is a very delicate balance. But I'll say one thing - it works when there is respect on both sides of this equation between the press and those in the White House. If one side declares the other side to be enemies of the American people, it doesn't work.

KELLY: In the situation that unfolded just this past week, I mentioned NPR was there. Our White House reporter Sarah McCammon was there and agreed to the ground rules. And we continue to abide by them. Some other news organizations have said, deal's off. We are reporting the name. And the name of this official is now out there. What do you think of that?

MCCURRY: Well, I think it's a precarious position for both sides to be in because sometimes the White House wants to provide information and provide content and help people understand context. But, you know, in the public's right to know, we probably ought to know who it was that was briefing and whether they are authentic and genuine and reliable as a source. And so it's easy to understand why other news organizations would say, we're going to report on who this individual was. And I think it reflects the very acrimonious relationship that exists between the press and this White House.

KELLY: That is former White House spokesman Mike McCurry speaking on the record. Thanks very much for that.

MCCURRY: (Laughter) You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.