POLITICS

Does Hillary Clinton Have An Anonymous-Sources Problem? We Asked A Bunch Of Anonymous Sources

02/19/2015 05:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Over at National Journal, Emily Schultheis reports on a problem that's been bedeviling those who are closely tied to the proto-campaign of former secretary of state and presumed presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton: the bewildering welter of sources and commenters who show up in news reports, using the veil of anonymity to pass themselves off as bona fide "Clintonland" insiders. Schultheis notes that Clinton is basically cursed by her long history in politics and in Washington, since there's now virtually no end to the number of people who can semi-credibly claim to be "familiar with her thinking" or have "deep knowledge of the Clinton campaign," or who are simply "Clinton allies."

All of which has created a mess for the people who are really running the show. Per Schultheis:

"There are three parties to this equation: We're one, the source is two, and the media is three. And arguably we have the least amount of influence on any of this," said longtime Clinton aide Philippe Reines. He conceded, though, that there's no real way for her team to control it. "We just have to sit back. We just have to grin and bear it."

The issue is singularly frustrating for people who work and have worked in Clinton's press operation and dealt with the issue first-hand -- enough so that several of whom, like Reines, were willing to give rare on-the-record interviews for this story.

That Schultheis actually got these on-the-record interviews is itself significant -- it means she's done the virtuous work of ensuring that her readers know who is opining on this matter. The whole episode raises an interesting question: Sure, this is a mess for the Clinton campaign, but... should it really be their mess? Isn't the onus on the actual reporter to ensure that the people they quote, the people speaking for, to, and about Hillary Clinton -- about anyone or anything, really! -- are in fact legit? Wouldn't there be less of a mess if journalists simply exercised some judgment about whom they allow a platform?

To help answer the question, I have solicited a bunch of anonymous quotes from people whose tenuous claims to knowledge on these matters are probably no better and no worse than most of the anonymous people you see in political reporting -- all of whom sound much better when you don't know who they are.

***

Here in the way-too-early part of the 2016 campaign -- when not much is happening, but political reporters act as if every micro-event is of sea-boiling significance -- anonymous sources of the most loopy varietals flourish. It's a time when that "long-time GOP foreign-policy expert who is not yet part of the Bush team but has consulted with the candidate informally" gets to hold court. A period in which "every talk" you've had with the close confidants of a would-be candidate leads to an embarrassing game of media telephone and hastily discarded headlines.

CNN ran a report on Feb. 2 that presumed to have the goods on the internal debate within the Clinton campaign about when she should announce her candidacy. That piece included this amazing attribution: "Democrats on both sides of the debate spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity so they could make their case without upsetting Clinton or those close to her for talking openly about internal deliberations."

If you don't want to upset Clinton by speaking out of turn about internal deliberations, isn't the simplest solution just to not talk to CNN? HuffPost asked some knowledgeable parties for their opinion. "It's crazy. It's like saying that you're really worried about your cocaine addiction, and so you've decided to just do all the blow you have on hand so that it's not there to tempt you anymore," replied one political writer, who asked for anonymity in case that hastily constructed metaphor didn't land.

Earlier this week, the rabbit hole of anonymous sourcery opened up after former Obama adviser David Axelrod, currently promoting a book about what a big ol' Obama adviser he was, offered up some unsolicited advice for the Clinton campaign, including the tip that Clinton needs to "define herself." From there, The Hill's Amie Parnes wrote a story -- "Axelrod quips irritate Clintonland" -- that opened with a flurry of anonymous sources digging at Axelrod for his "rash of recent comments." It went like so:

“It's not helpful, and it's definitely not appreciated,” said one Clinton ally. “The last thing we need is another round of headlines about lingering tension, and this is doing exactly that.

“When he speaks, it gets picked up, and people listen,” the ally added.

Another supporter added: “I think a lot of us are scratching our heads. Why is any of that necessary?” A third added, "She's been a great team player, she's been very supportive of the president and she hasn't gotten in front of him on a lot of issues so what's he trying to do?"

Were any of these people claiming to be "allies" and "supporters" actually, in fact, deeply embedded with Clinton's inner circle? Given the progression from Axelrod's commentary, to Parnes' reported rebuttal, to Schultheis' reporting today, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that, uh, no, they were not. Schultheis says as much in the headline of her piece: "When a Clinton 'Ally' Isn't an Ally at All." As she puts it:

The thing is, a Clinton "ally" could be anyone: a top donor or a former staffer in the know, sure, but also a Democratic strategist on the outside who is just sharing an opinion, wants to feel important, or is hoping to settle a score. What's more, it's far harder for the campaign to chastise someone for saying things they shouldn't -- or stop telling that person privileged information -- if they're quoted anonymously and you don't know for sure who said what.

But why would anyone who's not part of Clinton's inner circle want to offer an anonymous defense? What's in it for them? Once again, HuffPost sought the opinions of learned parties. "I don't have the faintest idea what you get in return for defending her if no one knows who you are. And these quotes could come from anyone. It could be Lanny Davis, for all I know. Doesn't he have a column at The Hill? I bet it's just Lanny Davis," said one Washington-based reporter who requested anonymity to avoid a phone call from Lanny Davis.

Others suggested that anonymous sources can sometimes wrangle benefits for themselves if they play their cards right. "There's always the prospect of maybe outing yourself as an anonymous defender somewhere down the line," said one political reporter with knowledge of these matters. "You know, you're at a party, you collar someone in the real Clinton universe, tell 'em, 'I felt like I had to go to bat for you guys.' Maybe you get a favor out of that."

But the Clintonites that Schultheis gets on the record sure seem to be signaling that this is not the way to earn a favor. In fact, they say it's a "constant problem" that's "never helpful."

It's an open question, of course, how much this will all ultimately matter. Some say that this is an overblown non-story. "The idea that Clinton has a problem with anonymous sources is overblown. It's a complete non-story," said an anonymous source who requested anonymity so as not to offend other anonymous sources by diminishing their importance to the campaign.

And if you take a data-driven approach to this conundrum, and really examine the numbers, you find evidence for that. "The numbers for Hillary look great," said a D.C.-based pollster and former Clinton campaign consultant.

So, whose responsibility is it? Should the Clinton campaign police this stuff, or should reporters stop passing off non-insiders as intimates for the sake of good copy? This is where opinions diverge.

In the words of one experienced Capitol Hill reporter, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity to avoid the repercussions of trash-talking her colleagues: "Sometimes I think people think it makes them sound better and more impressive to have anonymous sources. I'm so important that I can get even people who don't want to talk to reporters to talk to me! It's like when people begin tweets with Sources tell me... Congrats, you have sources! You are a reporter. Good job."

But you'll find other experienced newsroom hands who blame the Clinton insiders themselves, suggesting that their current problem with anonymous sources is no one's fault but their own.

"The Clinton campaign isn't an official campaign and therefore has no official spokespeople, so for them to complain that reporters aren't getting on-record quotes from nonexistent people is a little too clever. But it's all familiar: People around her have historically been hostile to the press, closed off and mistrustful, in love more with playing games, lying and settling scores than actually communicating openly, always amplifying their non-candidate's worst instincts. I can't imagine why reporters go to people who both have access to Clinton and speak with some frankness," said one top Washington editor who just can't fathom that "we have close to two years of this to endure, if not more."

Others preferred to speak in confounding non sequiturs. "I was once alone in a Senate elevator with Hillary, and I'm pretty sure she winked at me in a 'Hey, I'm really into you... like into you into you' way," said one female Capitol Hill reporter who requested anonymity to protect everyone's relationships.

"What Ryan said," said one veteran political reporter and published author who requested anonymity and then also requested that he be allowed to identify one of the other anonymous sources in this piece by their first name, only to then disappear from the piece entirely, leaving behind a tantalizing but ultimately unsolvable mystery.

Schultheis' article seems to come down on the side of the Clinton camp, depicting this as a problem they can't solve on their own. Of course, one can't dismiss the possibility that Schultheis has penned a good old-fashioned "beat sweetener," siding with Clinton's real inner camp on this issue to smooth the way for future reporting. And so the rabbit hole continues.

Ultimately, the problem may be even more profound. "The real issue here is that no one knows the real Hillary," said one insider who requested anonymity because she couldn't prove she knew the real Hillary.

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