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But You Didn’t Hear It From... Anyone

Anonymity abuse in the corporate press

It’s hardly necessary for a critic to argue that the country’s major daily newspapers, the New York Times and Washington Post, routinely ignore their stated principles on anonymous sources (however vague such standards may be to begin with), the outlets make the case so vividly themselves.

The New York Times rules state, for instance, that anonymity is “reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy,” and “should not be invoked for a trivial comment, or to make an unremarkable comment appear portentous” (“Confidential News Sources Policy,” NYTCo.com).

Times readers, nonetheless, regularly confront passages like that in which a “top Israeli official” (1/24/11) must be nameless in order to suggest, with regard to the effect revelations of leaked Palestinian documents might have on Mideast negotiations, that things could go one way or another:

The big question for him was whether the revelations would make the Palestinians more timid in future negotiations because of public indignation. He said they seemed to be walking away from their concessions since they were revealed.

 

Alternatively, the official said, the opposite could be true—the Palestinian public could get used to the kind of concessions needed for a deal now that they were in the open, and that would ease future talks.

Likewise, the Times stands, in principle, against anonymity “as cover for a personal or partisan attack.” The actual paper, on the other hand, contains stories like one (10/4/10) in which “an executive at Fox News” is provided incognito so he can express “astonishment” that Barack Obama would single Fox out for criticism: “We are so in his head,” he taunted. “Can you believe with all the other things going on in this world he’s preoccupied with Fox News?”

Washington Post policy warns against the “casual” or “automatic” use of anonymity, stating the paper’s goal is “to make our reporting as transparent to the readers as possible” (“Washington Post Policy on Sources,” WashingtonPost.com, 4/13/04).

Somehow editors see that standard met when, in a piece (11/29/10) on WikiLeaks-exposed cables indicating questionable tactics by U.S. diplomats, a “senior U.S. intelligence officer” gets to assert without attribution that “our diplomats do, in fact, help add to our country’s body of knowledge on a wide range of important issues. That’s logical and entirely appropriate, and they do so in strict accord with American law.”

The Post also stands firmly against the ad hominem: “Sources who want to take a shot at someone in our columns should do so in their own names.”

But a Post story (2/15/11) on the resignation of TARP inspector general Neil Barofsky, who had been critical of many administration actions, permits one of Barofsky’s presumed targets, an unnamed “Treasury official,” to declare, “We’re fine with critics, [but] he’s been consistently wrong about a lot of big things.” A serious charge to level without having to answer to it. The paper explained that the official “spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak more candidly.” The ad hominem attack, in other words, was the paper’s rationale for anonymity, rather than cause to deny it.

The inverse of personal attack would be puffery, and both papers officially caution against special pleading and spin, along with quotations, as the Post rules have it, “whose only purpose is to add color to a story.”

Why, then, must a “senior administration official” go unnamed (Washington Post, 5/26/10) in order to say that a post-oil spill presidential trip to the Gulf Coast “will demonstrate that Obama is ‘on top of it’”? Or another “senior administration official” be provided cover (Washington Post, 6/23/10) to declare of new CIA head Gen. David Petraeus, “No one is going to doubt that he’s the right guy for the job”?

Both outlets’ rules emphasize making clear to readers why a given source must be shrouded. But the explanations are patently ad hoc and random.

A NATO official stating unequivocally (New York Times, 12/28/09) that a group of Afghans killed in a raid were “known Taliban members and smugglers,” is permitted to do so anonymously “because of the delicacy of the issue.” An FCC official’s claim (New York Times, 12/1/10) that FCC chair Genachowski “thinks he has found a way around” a court ruling has no name attached “because the chairman’s proposal was subject to change.” And so on.

Some reasons sound like anti-reasons, as when the Washington Post (6/2/11) reports a lobbyist’s favorable reaction to a congressional move, noting the source “asked for anonymity in order to protect relationships with clients and officials.” So much for the paper’s claim that “our obligation is to serve readers, not sources.”

The papers’ guidelines talk about protecting people for whom “disclosing their identities could cost them their jobs or expose them to harm.” But the bulk of the actual protection would seem to go to those more likely to use it to promote their livelihood, rather than protect it.

While the Times and Post break their own rules often, in letter and in spirit, the rules themselves contain holes you could drive a Humvee through, the most glaring being the routine shrouding provided government and military officials.

Times policy refers explicitly to the “exception” of “authoritative officials in government who, as a matter of policy, do not speak for attribution.” These would include the Defense Department and NATO officials whose repeated “walkbacks” of initial claims about Afghan civilian casualties, for example (Extra!, 6/09), somehow never move them from the list of “reliable” information sources.

Post rules discuss working with those “in politics,” who “are often reluctant to speak on the record,” and go on to suggest how reporters might address the credibility problem this could arouse in readers:

In an era when more and more of the people we deal with want to remain hidden from view, we can help readers by telling them the reasons why they are not seeing more on-the-record quotes. Indeed, this is one of our best weapons against excessive secrecy. A sentence that reminds readers, for example, that a particular government agency has internal rules forbidding most of its officials from speaking on the record, and has refused to explain this policy publicly, is a good addition to any story where it is appropriate.

OK. But what if, instead of managing readers’ expectations by defining openness downwards, journalists just said no to the deal?

As it happens, it’s been tried—at the Washington Post, no less. Veteran reporter and critic Ben Bagdikian recounted the fateful experiment (American Journalism Review, 8–9/05):

It came during the Nixon administration, a turbulent era that witnessed all the pitfalls of namelessness, including high officials flimflamming the news media. Henry Kissinger, at the time Nixon’s chief foreign policy adviser, was adept at giving one group of reporters an “inside tip” on an anonymous basis; an hour later, in his oracular voice, enhanced by his carefully preserved Germanic accent, he would say something entirely different to a favored reporter. When it came to the Post, other Nixon officials often made life difficult for the paper’s reporters, sometimes hiding behind the label “an unnamed source” when releasing a statement of dubious truth.

 

Finally, [then-Post executive editor Ben] Bradlee had had enough. He announced the “no more unnamed sources” policy to the newsroom. From now on, when an official said, “This briefing is for background only,” meaning the information couldn’t be attributed to a named source, Post reporters were to walk out. Or if a Cabinet officer said, “This will have to be off the record”—meaning it couldn’t be used at all—Post reporters were to say politely that they were not allowed to listen.

Working at the paper at the time, Bagdikian recalls that most national editors felt the effort was doomed, that

the sheer mass of information revealed by officials who protected themselves with anonymity constituted too large a portion of daily front-page news for the policy to survive. They turned out to be right.

 

Murrey Marder, one of our diplomatic correspondents, told me recently that during the noble experiment a fellow diplomatic reporter announced at a background briefing that he couldn’t take anything from an unnamed source. He walked out of the room. But nobody followed him.

With their own standards as indication, not to mention their practices, today’s corporate journalists appear more interested in justifying and defending the “we didn’t hear it from you” deal they have with politicians than challenging it. That works out swell for powerful people who’d prefer to avoid accountability for what they say, and terribly for citizens for whom that accountability is crucial.

Sidebar:
Anonymity by the Numbers

How much do the newspapers of record rely on anonymous sources? In a survey of front-page New York Times and Washington Post stories for the week of October 1-7, 2011, 18 out of 77 stories, or 23 percent, featured at least one anonymous source. (This does not include the offhand citation of generic opinion--e.g., "economists say," "Democrats say.")

In the Post, 10 out of 35 stories (29 percent) used anonymous sourcing, including every story on Afghanistan, Pakistan or Al-Qaeda. In the Times, it was eight of 42 (19 percent), including all but one story on Afghanistan or Al-Qaeda.

That's a remarkably high incidence rate for a technique journalists are told to studiously avoid. And it's striking that it's the stories about U.S. military activity--that is, killing being carried out in the name of the U.S. citizenry--that are seen as requiring the greatest lack of accountability.

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