March 25, 2019
Column

Journalists must stop using anonymous sources

Reporters and their news sources, hiding behind a shield of anonymity, are looking mighty chicken these days.

The public, like the bespeckled old woman in the hamburger ad a few years ago, is asking, “Where’s the beef?” Ever since the reliance of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on their secret “Deep Throat” of Watergate days, news reporters have routinely violated one of the old rules of journalism: attributing the quote to a named source.

That was such an elementary lesson any cub reporter caught using a dubious quote watched as the news copy was wadded up and hurled into a wastebasket. No quotable source, no story. No beef, no story.

Today, that principle isn’t applied because reporters and sources alike are either fearful of losing their jobs, scared of other repercussions, or just too lazy to validate quotes and the information contained in them.

Note a recent story from The Washington Post on the lowering of the administration’s expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq – a lengthy story and an important one – if the public is to trust unnamed “U.S. officials” whose opinions are spread generously throughout the piece.

The following paragraph pretty well sums up the story, but the credibility of it might be impeached because of that dastardly anonymity tool: “‘We set out to establish a democracy, but we’re slowly realizing we will have some form of Islamic republic,’ said another U.S. official familiar with policymaking from the beginning, who like some others interviewed would speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity. ‘That process is being repeated all over.'”

Right, it’s being repeated all over, this “condition of anonymity.” Another long quote is cited by “a senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion;” yet another from “a U.S. official in Baghdad familiar with reconstruction issues.”

Last week I read an online piece about Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into the unmasking of Valerie Plame’s identity. The story would have been interesting were not for repeated anonymous quotes: “according to legal sources familiar with Libby’s account,” “sources close to the investigation said,” “numerous people involved in the case said,” and my favorite one, “an attorney in private practice who once worked closely with Fitzgerald said…”

Is everybody out there too chicken to stand up and be counted? The stories would carry a heck of a lot more weight with a suspicious public hungry for attributable facts – for beef, in other words.

Robert Novak certainly should know that by now. Novak, who revealed the identity of undercover CIA operative Plame, cited “two senior administration officials” as his sources. Look where that led him – and possibly them.

Frankly, I’d rather read Arthur Krock’s words from The New York Times in the mid-1930s. The head of the Washington Bureau of the Times wrote this about “the gathering of the news”:

“Policy and the standards of newspaper management determine whether the published results are to be unverified gossip and tale-bearing, animated by personal spites and ambitions; or whether these results are to be important and dignified news. We strive to assure that Washington news dispatches of this type in The Times are in the second category.”


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