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I’ll take “I don’t know” over total nonsense from White House Press Secretaries

Alex Wong

Buzzfeed mined through the transcripts of more than 5,000 White House press briefings stretching back to 1993 to see which press secretary used the most evasive language. The answer? George Stephanopoulos. It wasn't even very close:

Weasel words

Buzzfeed

But I wonder if this chart is telling us what we think it's telling us.

Buzzfeed analyzed the transcripts for "weasel phrases" like "I can't comment on," "I'm not aware [of/that/etc.]," and "I don't know." But are these really weasel phrases?

There is a distinction, I think, between a straight non-answer and actual evasion. "I can't comment on that" is information, of a sort. It tells you the issue is touchy. It suggests the White House is scared to talk about it or, at the least, believes it to be too sensitive or too far outside of their jurisdiction to address. It's a direct response to a question and it carries information.

Similarly, "I don't know" actually is an answer. People sometimes do not know things! If I ask my wife where the mail key is and she says "I don't know," I don't accuse her of evasion.

Evasion, I think, is a closer relative of misdirection and bullshit. You ask a question and get something that sounds like an answer but collapses on itself when you pick it apart. On March 18, 2013, Jay Carney was asked whether President Obama would cut back on his vacations given the unemployment numbers. Carney doesn't respond with a "yes," a "no," or even an "I don't know." He responds with this:

Q: I wanted to follow up on this young woman's question about the high unemployment out in places like Colorado, all around the country, especially in the minority communities -- exceptionally high unemployment. And when there is government workers who may be furloughed, millions of Americans unemployed, and family budgets that have been cut, how does the President justify lavish vacations and a golf trip to Florida at taxpayer expense? And does he plan to cut back on his travel?

MR. CARNEY: I can tell you that this President is focused every day on policies that create economic growth and help advance job creation. We have presided over the past three years over an economy that's produced over 6.3 million private sector jobs, and we have more work to do. And this President's number-one priority is growth and job creation.

Put aside your feelings about the question. That's evasion: Carney got one question, and he dodged it in order to answer a different question. "No" or even "I don't know" would have been direct responses to the reporter. This kind of word salad is much more evasive — but it doesn't show up in Buzzfeed's methodology.

Buzzfeed's conclusion is that "George Stephanopoulos used evasive language more than any other press briefer," but I'm not sure about that. Stephanopoulos might have straightforwardly refused to answer questions more than other briefers. But that might be evidence of a less weaselly approach. His successors realized that repeatedly saying "I don't know" or "I can't comment" looked bad on the nightly news. So their evasions became more sophisticated. A clip of Jay Carney saying "this President is focused every day on policies that create economic growth and help advance job creation" looks just fine if it gets replayed. But it's actually much less informative than "I don't know" or "I can't comment on that."

Today's briefers aren't necessarily less evasive than previous briefers; they're just more sophisticated in their approach to dodging questions. Their evasions look and sound like answers — and that makes them hard to count.

Ultimately, Buzzfeed's methodology found Ari Fleischer was the most straightforward of recent press secretaries. I think that speaks to some of these issues with the methodology, but wherever you fall on Fleischer's tenure, his response was excellent: