Background Briefings Are a Scourge

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.

Technology journalist Brian Merchant says he’s tired of PR flacks from tech companies refusing to talk unless it’s off-the-record:

After my experience with Amazon, I decided that on all matters of importance, I am no longer going to listen to a public relations representative try to change my mind on background with unquotable statements attributable to no one. No reporter should, not when the stakes are as high as they are. If an actual source—an engineer, or a policymaker—wants to go on background for protection, that’s one thing. But a spokesperson should either go on the record or get off the phone.

I get that day-to-day journalists have a different job than I do. They need responses from tech companies when they write about them, and they genuinely want to hear both sides of a story. Nevertheless, it’s inconceivable to me that they routinely let companies get away with this. And not just tech companies, either. This goes for everyone. As Merchant says, a background briefing allows a company flack to say anything without being held accountable. They can fill your mind with any kind of nonsense as a way of trying to change what you write, and it’s all but impossible to check out the truth of what they’re saying.

I have long refused to talk to anyone on background. Obviously this is pretty easy for me, especially since I don’t talk to very many people in the first place. But the truth is that corporate PR shops aren’t very useful even when they do talk on the record, and little is missed if you give up the routine practice of “asking for comment” on every story. Inevitably, the comment is either “no comment” or “we deny it.” Who needs it?

Either talk on the record or shut up. Those should be your choices.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.