One well-guarded secret in the press is that nobody necessarily agrees on the terms governing the guarding of secrets. “Deep background,” “not for attribution,” “off the record”–the specific interpretation varies from reporter to reporter and source to source.
Now Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff has made things even more impenetrable with this week’s revelation that Time‘s Matthew Cooper, in an e-mail to his bureau chief, characterized a conversation with Karl Rove as having been on “double super secret background.” Too short to be a double Dutch riff, too rhythmic to be anything else–what does this newest addition to the technical lexicon mean? Experts weigh in:
“I’ve heard of background and deep background, which usually means no quotations of any kind. I’ve never heard of double super secret background, but it sounds like a good name for an overpriced ice cream cone.”
–David Sanger, senior White House correspondent, New York Times
“I think it means that Rove didn’t want to be identified. I don’t know whether Karl Rove used those words or if those were the words Matt Cooper used in his e-mail to Mike Duffy, but it’s not a generally used term to describe a conversation.”
–Dan Balz, national political correspondent, Washington Post
“Matt Cooper is an extremely funny person (he does a stand-up comedy routine in New York and Washington), so I think he’s probably making fun of the Washington press culture, though I guess he also probably wanted to stress that the recipient of his e-mail make sure to guard the identity of his source, and a lot of good THAT did.”
–Adam Nagourney, national political reporter, New York Times
“Sounds like ‘double secret probation’ from Animal House.”
–Dana Milbank, Washington Post
“The proper answer is that ‘double super secret background’ is ‘background’ with hot fudge sauce, nuts, sprinkles and a hidden microphone. In short, it’s a made-up term by someone who’s too into the hugger-mugger of the whole thing. I can’t imagine using it without a horselaugh.”
–James Traub, regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine
“I’ve never heard that term before.”
–A longtime New York Times journalist, speaking on background only.