Why oh why can't we have a better press corps? Outsourced to Ezra Klein:
EzraKlein Archive | The American Prospect: It used to be that "on background" meant that someone was telling you something that could be damaging for their career, but that they felt it important for the public to know. The reporter, weighing the value of the information, could choose to mask the source but convey the fact. As such, readers began to habituate themselves to the fact that "background" information was actually better than attributed information. At some point, flacks figured this out, and started putting random things on background in order to increase perceptions of the information's importance. And so you get the absurd spectacle of a still unnamed Sarah Palin aide saying, "we go into today with a candidate who's got, on background, enormous clarity and action versus a candidate of contemplation and confusion."
Because, as you can imagine, it would really damage that aide's credibility if they were caught complimenting their boss on tape. At the end of the day, a lot of the failures in journalism are a collective action problem. If the profession set some standards for when they'd allow background, and when a proven lie would lead them to out a source, flacks and operatives would stop pulling this crap. But they don't, because there's always some reporter willing to play stenographer on the off-chance that it will, down-the-road, lead to useful access.
The offending journamalist is Scott Conroy, who has no business being in the business.