art of the leak
|The knock on mainstream journalists, especially in Washington, is that
they sit around and wait for the phone to ring, signaling the next leak and
the next big story.
Like so much of conventional wisdom, there’s a little bit of truth to that.
A lot of breaking news is handed to reporters.
Even the investigative torch that flamed a presidency turned out to be fueled in part by a senior-level FBI official with an agenda.
This city isn’t bursting with ethically driven Daniel Ellsbergs.
There are probably a thousand leaks a day here — and a thousand reasons.
“In the end, the reason is that this is Washington, D.C.,” says Dale Leibach, a former spokesman with the Carter White House.
In a town where information is currency and few opportunities exist for trading it aboveboard, it’s no surprise that a bustling black market has developed.
And like all illicit markets, it has its unwritten rules and regulations.
Those rules, though, depend on a nearly limitless number of outside factors that can change the answer to the fundamental mystery at hand: What is a leak?
It’s all about perception.
“When an organization is being run well, people tend not to look at things as leaks, but they tend to look at things as information specifically being put out for some strategic purpose,” says Chris Lehane, a spokesman for the ’92 Clinton campaign and later the White House.
“When things are not well, the information getting out there is perceived as leaks.”
That’s partly because bad-weather leaks differ fundamentally from fair-weather ones.
“Morale matters,” says Brian Jones, a former spokesman with the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“It’s also a function of different factions popping up in a campaign. But if on the macro level morale is good, those factions are less likely to develop.”
For a veteran campaigner, identities and agendas are more transparent.
The civilian, though, can look at the way a source is identified for clues.
The more sources on the same message and the more specific the ID — say, “senior administration official” — the more likely the leak is authorized.
The vaguer the description — “a source familiar with” — the greater the chance that somebody’s talking out of school.
While Leibach may be right that there are a thousand or more reasons to leak information, they can all be sorted into about three categories: malevolent, benevolent and accidental.
Those three categories, in turn, can be broken out into at least 11 separate piles.
The Drive-the-Cycle Leak: It’s not a fluke that a news outlet or two always happens to “obtain a copy” of a major speech early.
Or take Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s leak of her third-quarter earnings to the Drudge Report.
§On Tuesday, Drudge’s lead story was sourced to a “top Clinton insider” and claimed that Clinton’s team had warned CNN’s Wolf Blitzer not to gang up on Clinton in the upcoming debate.
The Trial-Balloon Leak: Names of candidates for Cabinet positions are often leaked.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was floated as the next attorney general.
The balloon was popped by Senate Democrats, who noted that Chertoff’s handling of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath would be an issue at confirmation.
The Expectations Leak: Bush’s people were masters of this strategy during his presidential campaigns, establishing such low expectations for their candidate before he went into debates against Vice President Al Gore in 2000 or Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004 that all he had to do was speak semicoherently to succeed.
The Because-They-Wouldn’t-Say-It-on-the-Record-It-Must-Be-Newsworthy Leak: “Because of journalistic rules,” says Jones, “you just can’t put information out in a press release or call a press conference or just call a reporter and say it, so you have to be strategic.”
That involves going directly to a journalist with some seemingly illicit gut-spilling. “The more conflict [reporters] have, and the more content they have, the more likely they are to take your leak.”
The Agenda Leak: Linked to morale and office infighting, this leak is rarely good for the organization but serves the interests of specific people or factions.
Just look at who’s getting slammed and who’s not.
Take McCain: When he was imploding last summer, a steady stream of stories about internal feuding rushed out.
From within, of course.
The Slowly-Letting-the-Air-Out-of-the-Balloon Leak: This is Lehane’s specialty going back to the Clinton impeachment days, when the White House slowly leaked information so that the public wasn’t blown to pieces by one bombshell.
Special prosecutor Ken Starr’s office, too, was a sieve during that time.
Sometimes, though, reporters can mistake one type of leak for another.
When McCain’s people started leaking that his fundraising number would be pitiful earlier this year, says Lehane, it backfired because most assumed his camp was simply trying to lower expectations — which has the countereffect of raising expectations in a “crying wolf” sort of way.
When low numbers came in as promised, the story hadn’t been blunted.
The Pre-emptive Leak: A corollary of the above, this is a strategy to disseminate damaging news extremely early in a campaign so that it’s an old story by the time it matters.
Lehane cites an example from last decade. “In 1998, congressional Republicans had a report on Gore and campaign fundraising that was designed to be devastating,” he writes in an e-mail.
The report “‘found’ its way to The Wash[ington] Times on a Saturday morning, which (a) tainted the report as it was covered initially in a right-wing publication, (b) diminished news value by having [the] Times preview it, (c) came out on a Saturday a.m. (good day to kill a story) and (d) allowed Gore operation to point to the leak as proof of the partisan nature of the inquiry and undermine its credibility.”
The Accidental Leak: “It’s generally a good rule of thumb to be friendly with the press. [But] not everyone in the press is your friend,” says Jones. “It’s a transactional relationship.”
Forgetting that can result in loose lips and is a surprisingly common reason for a leak.
The I-Scratch-Your-Back-You-Scratch-Mine/Relationship Leak: An individual sometimes provides information which does not serve his short-term purpose and can adversely affect the interest of his organization — but which serves to support a long-term relationship with the reporter involved.
This is often repaid with positive coverage of the leaker down the road.
The Flip Leak: Sources can serve up others in exchange for themselves or their candidates.
Lehane says a spokesman can tell a reporter who has a damaging story: “Well, you know, that’s an interesting story, but I think the more interesting story is this, and I’m more than happy to cooperate, but this thing can’t be about me.”
The-Sucker’s-Bet Leak: “This is particularly endemic to Washington, D.C.,” says Lehane.
“An individual provides information that really does not promote either his or her agenda or the organization but which makes them feel self-important, as they are providing information to the august Fourth Estate; often not done in an especially sophisticated way and where the leaker derives no benefit other than whatever solipsistic enjoyment they may get from seeing the coverage they helped create.”
And we Fourth Estaters love them for it.
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