White House criticizes The New Yorker’s ‘leading from behind’ sourcing

Dylan Stableford

Here's something you don't see every day: the White House in a war of words with The New Yorker.

During his interview with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" on Tuesday, President Barack Obama said he never used the phrase "leading from behind" to describe his approach to foreign policy. "This was a phrase that the media picked up on," Obama told Leno. "But it's not one that I ever used."

On Thursday, the White House press office sent an email to reporters with a link to a post by the USA Today's David Jackson backing the president up--and criticizing the sourcing on the New Yorker article where the phrase first appeared.

In a May piece in the magazine, Ryan Lizza wrote:

One of his advisers described the President's actions in Libya as "leading from behind." That's not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding.

"No one in this White House ever said leading from behind," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told USA Today. "It wasn't even sourced to an administration official, but rather the more nebulous 'adviser.' There are hundreds of people who could credibly be called an 'adviser' to the President, and there are hundreds more who go to DC cocktail parties and claim to be one."

Vietor added: "I hope we can stop talking about a thinly sourced background quote and focus on the President's actual record of decisive leadership on foreign policy."

Via Twitter, Lizza wrote that Vietor is "wrong," and that the "leading from behind" quote was from a White House official.

"The fact is, anyone who works in an office knows that no agency official or office employee can reliably say what every other official at an agency did or did not tell someone on condition of anonymity," Laura Rozen noted on Yahoo's Envoy. (Vietor seemed to back off slightly Thursday afternoon--telling the Huffington Post in an email: "I guess I should've said 'no one at the WH who knows how the President actually thinks' said that.")

It's not the first time The New Yorker's sourcing of the administration has come into question.

In August, the magazine published "Getting Bin Laden," a riveting 8,500-word account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But the story, written by freelancer Nicholas Schmidle, came under fire from several critics, who claimed that he and the New Yorker failed to disclose a major fact about the report: Schmidle never spoke with the SEALs directly.

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