Saturday, April 04, 2015

"I'm a senior State Department official": WaPo's Philip Bump treats us to "the parody-but-it's-not-a-parody that is Official Washington"


Just call him (or her?) "Senior Administration Official."

by Ken

With the craziness mounting all around us, we need the occasional guffaw, don't we? Even if it's just guffawing at some of the craziness around us?

In a "Fix" blogpost yesterday afternoon, the Washington Post's Philip Bump treated us to a snatch of a transcript posted on the State Department website:
QUESTION: Who are you today? Senior State --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m a senior State Department official, and you guys can report this as -- any of this as soon as we land.
QUESTION: We can’t?

: You can. Can.
QUESTION: (Off-mike.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Everything I say is newsworthy. I’ll let you be the judge.
Now are you going to tell me that there isn't at least a full RDA day's worth of guffaws here? We even get to make up for ourselves the question that prompted the immortal "Everything I say is newsworthy." (It's a sort of press-briefing Mad Libs.)

Ah, life in the Village we call Washington, DC. "I'm a senior State Department official"? "Everything I say is newsworthy"? Plus, the reporters either can or can't report it as soon as they land. If, one is impelled to add, they ever do.

Enough already! My sides are aching.

The transcript that the above excerpt comes from, FYI, is a "background briefing on travel to Switzerland." (Actually, if you check out the link above, you'll find that officially it's a "Special Briefing" by "Senior State Department Official En Route to Switzerland.") Let Philip take the story from here:
For those unfamiliar with public-relations-ese, a "background briefing" is information provided to a reporter that's meant to flesh out details of a story without being attributed back to source. In other words, then, this is information from someone at State who won't give his or her name because it's not technically official on-the-record information -- posted verbatim on the State Department's website as a press release, with everything but the person's name included.

It's a game. The reporter asks, so, who are you today? And the "senior State Department official" says who he or she is today, himself or not, and off they go.

(Editor's note: And, yes, certain members of The Fix team have taken part in this ritual too.)


Philip offers us two more samples of Transcript Madness.

(1) This is from yet another "Special Briefing," from Feb. 23, 2015, starring a new character, Senior Administration Official, who's in Geneva, Switzerland." We're not going to get quite to him/her, though. We're not actually going to get that far, though. This is just the preliminaries of a conference call that's being moderated.
Moderator: Secretary Moniz is going to stay upstairs with Secretary Kerry. [Senior Administration Official] and [name withheld], who everyone knows, are going to brief you all. We’ll do this for about 20 minutes so we can make our flight. So [Senior Administration Official] will do a few opening remarks. As always, this is on background to a senior Administration official. There’s obviously no embargo on it.
To which Philip notes: "As always."

(2) This is another "Special Briefing," again from Switzerland, specifically Lausanne, this past March 17. Apparently, though, it features an at least slightly different -- or perhaps merely augmented -- cast of characters, identified in the script as Senior Administration Official One and Senior Administration Official Two. Except,as you'll see, it's not quite that simple.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: All right. Sounds like we’re ready to kick things off. So as you all know, this is a background briefing. [Senior Administration Official Two] will be Senior Administration Official, and same ground rules as yesterday, embargoed till the end of the briefing.
And Senior Administration Official One will just, er, disappear? Why, it's as if he or she was never there! In case you're curious, although Philip doesn't quote any further, Senior Administation Official Two, aka Senior Administration Official, indeed proves to be a take-charge type. Here's how he starts:
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO [except we know that he/she "will be Senior Administration Official"! -- Ed.]: I’ll just say a few words to open it up, and especially, specifically, in terms of kind of the DOE role in these negotiations. And I think many of you are familiar with that, but let me say -- just say a few more words.
"A few more words?" A few more words? Who is this clown kidding? You couldn't shut him/her up with a shovel. And remember, if Senior Administration Official is anything like Senior State Department Official, everything he/she says is newsworthy.

The Post has written repeatedly about the frequent distance between the Obama administration's pledge to embrace transparency and how it does in practice. The use of "administration officials" in lieu of a real name isn't new; the term began appearing frequently in the New York Times in the 1980s and has been a constant since.

But, I don't know. Maybe once all the information is approved for global web publication, at least, we can say who's who? Or at least cut out the parts where everyone is joking about how ridiculous it is.
The first paragraph, by the way, contains two links (which I've eliminated) that didn't take me anywhere. (They seemed to be trying, unsuccessfully, to re-create searches.) I thought that was pretty cute too.

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