Told Ya

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m skeptical that the “anonymous” writer of that New York Times “resistance” oped is really as senior a figure as people think. In part it is difficult to believe that a Cabinet Secretary or top White House adviser would pen such an attack – inevitably they’d be found out. But that’s not the main reason. I learned a long time ago that this phrase “senior administration official” and similar phrases are actually highly elastic in nature. It can refer to a substantially greater number of people than the two or three dozen that includes cabinet secretaries, heads of top agencies and highest level White House officials. How many more? I have no idea. At a minimum I’d say two or three dozen White House officials and at a minimum the top and number two person at every department. It potentially includes a lot of people. Always has. Now comes some confirmation of this reasoning, but in a round about and somewhat a**-covering way.

This morning’s Mike Allen newsletter contains a brief item on growing doubts that “anonymous” is really quite as high ranking as people think.

The item includes some textual analysis/guesswork, a quote from Morning Joe. But the real kicker is this…

Hmmm 3, and this is the biggest one of all: Dao told Michael Barbaro on The Times’ podcast, “The Daily” that on the “senior administration official” terminology, “All I can say is I feel that we followed a definition that has been used by our newsroom in the past.” Whoa! A former (actual) senior administration official instantly phoned me to say what a red flag that is: Journalists are notoriously liberal in their definition of who constitutes a “senior administration official.”

This is a very circuitous logic that is worth unpacking. A phrase like “senior administration official” cannot have any inherent meaning. The only real meaning has to come from established usage. (That’s why so many non-journalists are asking journalists: who’s exactly included in that category? Again, because it cannot have an inherent meaning!) In this case, the oped editor says they “followed a definition that has been used by our newsroom in the past.” That’s a pretty reasonable and unsurprising answer. Allen and his source seem to think this was giving away the game, a big “red flag” since “journalists are notoriously liberal in their definition” of what this term means.

You can probably see the problem here. Again, this phrase “sao” can’t have any inherent meaning. It’s only meaning is defined by usage. Both Allen and his source are clear that the meaning, as defined by usage, is expansive. That is, as journalists use it. What definition would anyone expect the Times OpEd page to use other than the one journalists customarily use? Of course that’s the definition they’ll use! Whether you want to call that “notoriously liberal” or not, that’s what it is!

An additional irony for me is that it was in the early years of the Bush administration when I was following, among others, the very good reporting on the WMD and Plame story by a Washington Post reporter named Mike Allen that I first got a real sense of the expansiveness of this phrase.

Anyway, if the Deputy Secretary of X is saying this, that’s still a pretty big deal. Even if it’s the Under-Secretary. Depends a lot on the Department or agency. I have no idea. But it was silly ever to assume it was one of like 20 or 30 people. And if you did, that’s really on you.

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