media

backgrounder

backgrounder

A “backgrounder” is an off-the-record briefing for members of the media. Reporters are free to report on what they learn at a background briefing but normally are restricted as to how they cite their sources. Merriam Webster says that the term was first used in 1942.

Government officials give background briefings in order to announce, for example, new legislative proposals or new developments in foreign relations. International organizations (like the World Bank or the IMF) also give background briefings. So do advocacy groups and think tanks announcing new developments in their field, and businesses launching new products.

Like a pen and pad briefing, a background briefing is never filmed or broadcast; its purpose is to inform reporters only. Some backgrounders allow reporters to join by phone or video link, while others are live. Briefers are normally given anonymity; in articles about the briefing, they’re cited as “administration officials” or similarly. Depending on the briefers’ preferences, journalists may not be allowed to use direct quotes in their reporting.

The term backgrounder could also refer to the packet of research and/or photos sent to reporters to give them information on a given topic. That background information is sometimes referred to as a white paper. And the term backgrounder is sometimes used to mean an “explainer” piece run in a newspaper. In that case, the backgrounder is a long-form article meant to give readers context on an ongoing issue in the news.

Advocacy groups and think tanks often publish their own backgrounders, which are meant to provide foundational information on a little-known issue. However, these reports can also reflect the bias or narrow focus of the groups which produce them

Political reporters are often critical of background briefings, which are perceived as a way for the government to “spin” the media. Writing in the Atlantic in 2015, Ron Fournier complained that reporters were too willing to let public relations teams guide their coverage of politics, business, and sports.

Fournier argued that background briefings allow the government to get their messages into the press without having to stand behind what they say. Because officials are speaking anonymously, they never have to take public responsibility for the things they’ve said. Fournier wrote,

“Of the many ways that modern journalists cede power to authority, none is easier to fix than the notion that government officials are allowed to gather several reporters in a room or on a conference call, spew their clever lines of lies and spin, and declare it all “on background”—shielded from accountability “on condition of anonymity.”

Writing in the Washington Post, Paul Farhi also noted that background briefings are a way for the government to control the news cycle. Not only do officials impose rules about reporting, they also handpick the journalists allowed to attend their briefings, which creates an incentive for journalists to try and stay on officials’ good side.

Farhi wrote, “White House reporters tend to view the background briefings as a kind of mixed blessing. While they bristle at the rules, they say the briefings occasionally generate useful information they wouldn’t learn another way. Quoting a senior official without identifying him is imperfect, they acknowledge, but better than nothing.”

five o’clock follies

“Five o’clock follies” is a familiar and derogatory nickname for the daily press briefings that the U.S. military held for American reporters during the Vietnam War. In modern times, the phrase has been used to refer to any establishment effort to control the news about a given topic.

The original five o’clock follies took place over the course of eight years in a bar on the roof of Saigon’s Rex Hotel; they were conducted by a string of US military officials.

American journalists were widely critical of the briefings, which were seen as a way for the US military to use half-truths and carefully selected facts to make it look like America was winning the war when it was obviously becoming a quagmire. Richard Pyle, who served as Saigon bureau chief for the Associated Press, famously called the press conferences “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd.”

Even members of the military accepted that the briefings were the frequent butt of jokes. In an acknowledgement of the briefing’s reputation, Army Major Jere Forbus, the last man to run the briefings before they ended, said, “well, we may not have been perfect, but we outlasted Fiddler on the Roof.”

During the first Gulf war, in 1991, journalists dubbed the regular press briefings the “four o’clock follies.” Reporters claimed that the briefings were full of pointless facts but that they failed to answer real questions about the war itself. Later, in 2019, some members of the media compared the press briefings in Hong Kong to the five o’clock follies.

The expression “five o’clock follies” is sometimes stretched to mean any effort at all to control the news cycle. In 2016, the Daily Kos ran a piece arguing that the New York Times and the Washington Post were effectively running their own five o’clock follies. The piece claimed that the “elite media” was trying to control popular perception of the Democratic primaries, in particular that they were trying to play down the popularity of Bernie Sanders.

More recently, the New Yorker has claimed that President Trump was running his very own five o’clock follies. Like the original five o’clock follies in Saigon, Trump’s briefings on the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic took place at 5:00 every day. The Trump administration was widely criticized for its failure to stop the disease from spreading; his critics claimed that he had failed to take the pandemic seriously. Trump claimed early on that he had the epidemic “very much under control” – later, he pledged that the US would reopen in time for Easter, so that the church pews could be “packed.”

The New Yorker argued that  “just as the Vietnam briefings became a standard by which the erosion of government credibility could be measured then, historians of the future will consult the record of Trump’s mendacious, misleading press conferences as an example of a tragic failure of leadership at such a critical moment.”

off the record

A term used in journalism meaning that the information given to the reporter cannot be attributed to the person saying it. Off the record quotes are often used to protect sources who are giving information that could get them in trouble.

The term off the record has picked up many misconceptions. To be off the record, the journalist must agree to it. A person cannot declare himself off the record after statements are made and hope his statements will not be reported. If the source does not want the quote to be reported, with attribution or without, they must agree to it with the reporter beforehand.

Off the record quotes are used often in politics, typically to protect anonymous sources speaking out, and protecting them from being fired or silenced by politicians.

The Guardian: “Let’s face it, down the years we have been here many, many times. People say things to journalists, possibly in a light-hearted fashion, that end up in print. Inevitably, “official” denial follows. They may also fail to grasp what we mean by ‘off the record.’ For journalists, it simply means that it is reportable as long as the source is not identified.”

lid

A “lid” is what White House press secretaries use to indicate that there will be no news coming out of the White House that day. It can also be called a “Full Lid.”

A lid is typically called when the White House does not want to release any information about a key topic. They call a lid to give notice to journalists that no questions will be answered.

Although the term has been around for decades, it was popularized by fictional Press Secretary C.J. Cregg on TV show The West Wing.

Kelly O’Donnell: “The White House has again called a ‘lid’ meaning no other news is expected tonight.”

The Great Mentioner

“The Great Mentioner” describes the phenomenon whereby certain people are “mentioned” to journalists as possible candidates for higher office.

Scott Simon of National Public Radio explained: “The late Art Buchwald used to talk about the Great Mentioner — some unnamed person who told pundits and reporters a lot of people say this, a lot of people say that. Art said that if you trace back exactly who said this and that, it was usually just the reporters and analysts themselves that tried to splash a coat of credibility over sheer speculation by putting it in the mouth of the Great Mentioner.”

Ryan Lizza attributes the term to New York Times columnist Russell Baker who used it “to describe the mysterious source who plucks politicians from obscurity and mentions them to political journalists as contenders for higher office.”

press gaggle

A “press gaggle” is an informal briefing by the White House press secretary that, unlike a backgrounder, is on the record. However, video recording is not allowed.

It can occur anywhere, such as on Air Force One, but it often describes the informal interactions between the press and the press secretary that occur before a formal White House briefing.

The term likens the members of the press corps to  a “gaggle of geese” honking.

Washington Monthly: “Gaggles historically refer to informal briefings the press secretary conducts with the press pool rather than the entire press corps. They used to happen in the morning, they were more or less off the record, and their purpose was mostly to exchange information – the president’s schedule and briefing schedule, from the administration side; heads-up on likely topics or early comment on pressing issues, from the news side. Briefings were what everybody knows them to be.”

Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s Law is a term first promulgated in 1990 by author and lawyer Mike Godwin. Originally intended as a lesson in information “memetics,” or how the evolution of information spreads and evolves on the Internet, the term is used to describe the phenomenon that the longer an online discussion about politics lingers, the more likely it is that someone will make a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.

Specifically, the law reads: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1.”

As online chatting, comment boards, and fervent political discussion increased during the 1990s and into the 2000s, Godwin’s Law has become more and more relevant.

Godwin from a 1994 Wired Magazine article: “In discussions about guns and the Second Amendment, for example, gun-control advocates are periodically reminded that Hitler banned personal weapons. And birth-control debates are frequently marked by pro-lifers’ insistence that abortionists are engaging in mass murder, worse than that of Nazi death camps. And in any newsgroup in which censorship is discussed, someone inevitably raises the specter of Nazi book-burning.”

Years later, Godwin elaborated further on his own law: “It’s deliberately pseudo-scientific — meant to evoke the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the inevitable decay of physical systems over time. My goal was to hint that those who escalate a debate into Adolf Hitler or Nazi comparisons may be thinking lazily, not adding clarity or wisdom, and contributing to the decay of an argument over time.”

While Godwin’s law is very well known, it’s not often the subject of mainstream conversation or reported on the news because of the obvious sensitivity of its subject matter.Indeed, in 2017, when Godwin and his law were more openly discussed in the aftermath of the White Supremacist march on Charlottesville and the controversy that followed, Godwin, who rarely speaks out, was vocal: “One of the reasons that people have ever paid attention to Godwin’s Law at all is that I have been very careful to avoid policing how people invoke it, or use it, or apply it, or misapply it, except in fairly rare circumstances. But this was a no-brainer.”

In a Time Magazine article that same year, Godwin was quick to point out that all presidents have been accused of being like Hitler, proving his law true: “As far as I know, every President who has been President from the time I got on the internet has been compared by someone to Hitler. People compared President Obama to Hitler. People have forgotten there were pictures of Obama with a Hitler moustache. That talk was crazy.”

In 2013, Godwin’s Law made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 2019, the U.K’s Telegraph put Godwin’s Law into its all-time list of top 10 Internet rules and laws.

pen and pad briefing

A “pen and pad briefing” is a briefing held by lawmakers or White House officials at which video and photography is not allowed. It’s similar to a backgrounder.

While reporters used to gather around the person doing the briefing with their pads of paper and pens, they now typically use a voice recorder.

gotcha question

A “gotcha question” is one posed by a reporter in an effort to trick a politician into looking stupid or saying something damaging.

New York magazine: “When it does happen, they are often quick to blame their boneheaded remarks not on themselves, but on the inherently deceitful nature of the gotcha question itself. ‘If only this question had been posed differently, I would have provided the most accurate, comprehensive, and socially acceptable response man has ever known,’ they seem to contend. It’s a time-honored damage-control strategy employed by Sarah Palin more often than probably anyone else — not only in her own defense, but also in the defense of other Republicans.”

Washington Read

The “Washington Read” is the phenomenon by which, through a form of intellectual osmosis, a book is absorbed into the Washington atmosphere, according to the Washingtonian magazine.

“According to former White House speechwriter Dan McGroarty, to qualify as a Washington Read, a book not only has to be ambitious; it also needs ‘to be a book one would feel pressure to have read, and read early.’ This need to be ahead of the curve, coupled with demanding jobs that leave little time for reading, pushes people toward the Washington Read.”

The term is not to be confused with the Index Scan, which is when someone glances over the credits and footnotes to see if they’re mentioned.

politics ain’t beanbag

“Politics ain’t beanbag” Is an old-fashioned way of saying that politics can be rough. People express roughly the same idea when they call politics “hardball” or a “contact sport.”

The term originally comes from a 19th century novel by the writer Finley Peter Dunne. One of Dunne’s characters is an Irish American named  Mr. Dooley, who likes to sit in his favorite Chicago bar and talk about politics. The full quote from Mr. Dooley reads, ““Sure, politics ain’t bean-bag. ‘Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childer, cripples an’ prohybitionists’d do well to keep out iv it.”

The phrase is a little archaic, but it’s still used periodically, especially by political commentators who want to lend extra gravitas to their declarations. In 2014, for example, New York Post columnist Bob McManus wrote a piece discussing Andrew Cuomo’s re-election as the governor of New York. McManus wrote that Cuomo had used some dirty tactics to get elected but,

Big deal: Politics ain’t beanbag, as the Irish used to say, and Andrew Mark Cuomo woke up Wednesday morning sitting right where it matters most – in the catbird seat.

In 2018 the columnist Arlene Jones, writing in Austin Weekly News, used the phrase in a piece about Chicago politics. Jones described the plight of Ja’mal Green, a Chicago mayoral candidate who was having a tough time navigating the system. Jones concluded, ruefully,

“The coming weeks will reveal if Ja’mal makes it on the ballot or not. But knowing the way this city works, I’m not going to put too much money on it. Politics ain’t beanbag, and when you run, you need to learn how to play the game!”

Politicians use the expression too, of course. In 2013 Ted Cruz took to the Senate floor to denounce what he saw as a particularly nasty trick carried out by the Democrats. Cruz began by saying, “we all know the old saying that politics ain’t beanbag. But the nastiness with which the Democratic majority responded to Senator Vitter… was extraordinary.”

In 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for president, New York magazine poked fun at him for getting the famous phrase wrong, again and again. Romney repeatedly said that “politics ain’t bean bags” and once said that it ain’t “the bean bag.” Newt Gingrich, who also ran for president that year, tried to turn the expression back on Romney at one point.

What is bean bag, anyway? Today, the game is often referred to as a “bean bag toss” and is generally seen as a kids’ game; it’s the kind of game you might play in the back yard during a birthday party, for example. In some parts of the country, the game is referred to as “cornhole.”

The rules are very simple. Competitors hold small bags filled with dried beans (beanbags) and toss those bags into baskets, or into holes in a specially-made beanbag board. Whoever makes the most shots wins the game. It’s a gentle, friendly game – very much unlike presidential politics.

nattering nabobs of negativism

nattering nabobs of negativism

A phrase used by Vice President Spiro Agnew to refer to the members of the media with whom he had a very acrimonious relationship.

Said Agnew while speaking to the California Republican state convention on September 11, 1970: “In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H Club — the ‘hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.'”

While the phrase is generally attributed to Agnew, it was actually written by White House speechwriter William Safire.

As Will Bunch wrote:

The words that William Safire penned and that Spiro Agnew mouthed actually had enormous impact that has lasted until this day. They helped foster among conservatives and the folks that Nixon called ‘the silent majority‘ a growing mistrust of the mainstream media, a mistrust that grew over two generations into a form of hatred.

It also started a dangerous spiral of events — journalists started bending backwards to kowtow to their conservative critics, beginning in the time of Reagan, an ill-advised shift that did not win back a single reader or viewer on the right. Instead, it caused a lot of folks on the left and even the center to wonder why the national media had stopped doing its job, stopped questioning authority.

Another memorable Agnew line was calling anti-war protesters “effete snobs.”

full Ginsburg

The “full Ginsburg” refers to an appearance by one person on all five major Sunday-morning interview shows on the same day: This Week on ABC, Face the Nation on CBS, Meet the Press on NBC, State of the Union on CNN and Fox News Sunday.

The term is named for William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer during the Clinton scandal, who was the first person to accomplish this feat, on February 1, 1998.

Fourth Estate

The “Fourth Estate” refers to the news media, especially with regards to their role in the political process.

The phrase has its origins in the French Revolution, where the church, nobility and commoners comprised the first, second, and third estates. The media was first called the fourth estate in 1821 by an essayist who wanted to point out the press’ power. The term is now somewhat dated, but is used to stress journalists’ importance to politics.

photo-op

A photo-op is short for a “photo opportunity,” an event specifically staged for television news cameras or photographers to increase a politician’s exposure.

The term was reportedly coined during the Nixon administration by Bruce Whelihan, an aide to Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler. Ziegler would say, “Get ’em in for a picture,” and Whelihan would dutifully announce to the White House press room, “There will be a photo opportunity in the Oval Office.”