Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Today is the LAST DAY of this Mid-Year Campaign. This is our hour of need.
If you value independent journalism, please support Common Dreams.

TODAY is the last day to meet our goal -- Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year.

"It’s an odd choice of metaphor," writes Naureckas. "Rails, after all, are meant to keep a vehicle on a predetermined track."

Establishment Journalists Pride Themselves on Staying on the Official Rails

In his brilliant analysis in Columbia Journalism Review (3/15/15) of establishment media reaction to Seymour Hersh’s re-examination of the killing of Osama bin Laden (London Review of Books, 5/21/15), the Guardian‘s Trevor Timm notes that one of the put-downs hurled at Hersh to discredit his story is “off the rails”–as in, “In recent years, however, Hersh has appeared increasingly to have gone off the rails,” as Max Fisher put it in his Vox broadside (5/11/15).

It’s an odd choice of metaphor. Rails, after all, are meant to keep a vehicle on a predetermined track. It’s not much of compliment to compare a journalist to a smoothly operating train, always showing up at the official stations.

Am I reading too much into a cliche? Consider the reaction to Hersh’s use of anonymous sources that Timm describes:

It has been rich watching journalists fall over each other to see who can more vehemently criticize Hersh’s use of anonymous sources, despite the fact that using anonymous sources is a tried-and-true Washington ritual that receives almost no criticism in day-to-day reporting. Banal sound bites are regularly printed on the front pages without names attached, and entire press conferences are held every day with “senior government officials” who refuse to be named….

According to the excellent Twitter account @NYTAnon, the Times published at least 20 stories relying on anonymous sources in the five days after the Hersh story went online Sunday night, on topics ranging from new Facebook features to strife among Democrats over the stalled trade agreement to Cablevision dropping its bid for the Daily News. Imagine if reporters aimed a tenth of the criticism at those stories that they aimed at Hersh. Predictably, though, we’ve barely heard a peep.

Indeed, anonymity is sometimes warranted, and the idea that Hersh’s sources were anonymous should not come as a surprise. These are highly classified operations. The Defense Department has openly threatened to prosecute people for talking about the bin Laden raid, even as the CIA leaks its own version of events to friendly reporters and movie producers.

Why do establishment media watchers bristle at Hersh’s using anonymity for its intended purpose–protecting whistleblowers from retaliation–while expressing no problem with the routine use of unnamed sources to allow official spokespeople to make statements on behalf of their institutions with no accountability?

When the nameless are speaking on behalf of power, they’re in line with the official narrative: They’re on the rails. When an anonymous source is challenging power, they call that narrative into question–and go off the rails.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the purveyors of Iraqi WMDs, the eternal predictors of imminent Iranian nukes, the drone apologists who insist every “military-aged male” is a militant are accorded a presumption of credibility. Whereas calling into question the official story provokes not just skepticism but hostility: It’s an affront, after all, to those journalists who have the restraint, decency and good taste to stay on the rails.


© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of "Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error." He was an investigative reporter for In These Times and managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere.

TODAY is the last day of our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Texas Supreme Court Allows Century-Old Abortion Ban to Take Effect

"Extremist politicians are on a crusade to force Texans into pregnancy and childbirth against their will, no matter how devastating the consequences."

Jake Johnson ·


'What's There to Even Discuss?' Omar Says Free, Universal School Meals Should Be Permanent

"We have an opportunity to prove that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people can still deliver big things. And we can feed tens of millions of hungry kids while we do it."

Jake Johnson ·


'Stark Betrayal': Biden Administration Floats New Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling

"This is the third time since November the Biden administration has announced new oil and gas leasing plans on the Friday before a holiday," said one climate advocate. "They're ashamed, and they should be."

Jake Johnson ·


As US Rolls Back Reproductive Rights, Sierra Leone Moves to Decriminalize Abortion

"I'm hopeful today's announcement gives activists in the U.S., and especially Black women given the shared history, a restored faith that change is possible and progress can be made."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Indefensible': Outrage as New Reporting Shines Light on Biden Deal With McConnell

The president has reportedly agreed to nominate an anti-abortion Republican to a lifetime judgeship. In exchange, McConnell has vowed to stop blocking two Biden picks for term-limited U.S. attorney posts.

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo