I wrote a little story on US enforcement actions against China yesterday that included the results of a conference call with senior Administration officials. I included one quote from it and attributed it to the ubiquitous “senior Administration official.” I actually got on the call late and didn’t really know who was speaking, anyway; I knew one of the participants but not the other who I actually quoted. But it was requested on the call that the contents be attributed to senior Administration officials. Since I couldn’t do otherwise – I didn’t know who said the quote – and since it didn’t seem worth making an issue out of it, I complied.

I admire the Associated Press for refusing to comply.

The White House organized a conference call with two senior administration officials on Tuesday to “preview an announcement by President Barack Obama about an important China trade issue,” but told reporters on the call not to quote them by name.
The Associated Press sidestepped the request, naming them anyway:

The officials were U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, Michael Froman.

The AP did not quote Kirk and Froman directly, but its message was clear.

The news service pointed out the irony of conducting a “background” conference call–common for the administration–during so-called “Sunshine Week,” when “news organizations and advocacy groups promote government transparency.”

“Obama has promised that his administration will be the most transparent in American history,” the AP wrote. “But events on Tuesday illustrate that old habits die hard.”

The AP is absolutely right. These background calls are insidious, and a sad fact of life for me and reporters who cover them. Most of the time, the background information is no different than what gets said in public. There’s no compelling reason to keep the names secret. I think there are a couple factors at play. One, it’s just intimidation. Second, it makes the instances where conference calls or interviews go on the record seem more special, and makes the exchange of access more troubling. A hierarchy emerges for access, for off the record, for on the record.

In this case, the information on that call basically came right out of the press releases announcing the move. That’s why I used one quote, which was fairly banal. There was no reason that could not have been attributed to Michael Froman (that is, if I got on the call in time to know that’s who said it). In the future, I promise not to use this off-the-record information in similar contexts. Someone needs to break the cycle of official secrecy. I’m glad the AP took a stab at it.