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Welcome to the Sausage Factory

A lot of motley, sometimes suspect ingredients go into journalism, including anonymous sources. But that doesn’t mean they’re not good for you.

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In general, discussions of ethics in journalism make me want to reach for my revolver. It’s not that I don’t believe emphatically in square dealing and maximum honesty, but the customary righteousness, disingenuousness, futility, and wonky tedium of such debates are for me almost unbearable. Lately, however, the news itself has made the nuts and bolts of reporting a subject of watercooler chatter. The unavoidable issue is when and whether it’s okay for journalists to rely on information provided by people whom they don’t identify by name in their stories. Time’s Matt Cooper and the New York Times’ Judith Miller have appealed to the Supreme Court to save them from prison terms for refusing to disclose the names of their Bush-administration sources who told them the name of a CIA agent; Newsweek has admitted it recklessly trusted one of its anonymous administration sources concerning guards’ misbehavior at Guantánamo; and the identity of the ultimate anonymous source, Woodward’s (and Bernstein’s) Deep Throat, has just been revealed.

So . . . what are we to think? Let the symposium begin.

Why do journalists use anonymous sources?
Because people who are willing to tell reporters interesting things—that is, confidential or disturbing information or opinions—are usually disinclined to appear to be the candid plain talkers or snitches or whistle-blowers or gossips or backstabbers they are.

Whoa! That’s quite a gamut of motives and moral postures.
Exactly. Anonymous sources could be graphed on a bell curve running from dime-dropping scumbags to heroes, with the vast majority (probably including W. Mark Felt and Newsweek’s source) somewhere in the big, fat middle. Such a graph would almost certainly be an asymmetrical bell curve, however, with a skew (probably including Cooper’s and Miller’s sources) toward the sleazy end of the axis.

So because anonymity makes it easier for sources to blab, it makes it easier for reporters to do their jobs?
Yes. And in lots of cases makes it possible to do their jobs.

Does anyone seriously propose a ban on anonymous sources?
“Editors or news directors who permit their use,” Al Neuharth, the 81-year-old former chairman of the Gannett newspapers, recently wrote in USA Today, a paper he created, “are violating their trust.” In the last year, USA Today has reduced its use of unnamed sources to an average of fewer than one a day. If you want a sense of how banning anonymous sources might transform journalism, USA Today provides a pretty good preview. As The New Yorker’s David Remnick said when I asked him about his reporter Seymour Hersh’s use of anonymous sources, “How many national-security stories has USA Today broken?”

But anonymity makes it easier for sources to lie, doesn’t it?
There are ten or a hundred times as many on-the-record lies as unattributed lies in the press every day.

Doesn’t rampant confidentiality empower would-be Jayson Blairs—reporters can just make up information and say they got it from “a confidential source”?
Probably. Dan Okrent, who served as the Times’ first ombudsman, told me he thinks it was Times editor Howell Raines’s experience as a journalist in Washington, where anonymity is so promiscuously granted, that led him to find it plausible that Blair instantly developed (rather than fabricated) confidential law-enforcement sources in the Beltway-sniper case. However, we can’t gear the whole system to protect us against the occasional psycho. As I was told by one seasoned Times writer—okay, it was David Carr—“Anonymous sourcing is an ethically neutral tool that’s only as good as the people using it.” Just like with guns.

What, anonymous sources don’t kill journalism, sloppy journalists kill journalism?
Speaking of ideological role reversals, it’s interesting that in this debate, Republicans have been assuming the schoolmarmish, niggling M.O. for which they caricature liberal wimps. Ordinarily, those on the right argue that grand policy ends—economic freedom, a more democratic Iraq—justify messy, even brutal means. Yet here they’re carping about imperfect means (anonymous sources) to noble and necessary ends (truth, openness).

But Mark Felt did violate the FBI rules by talking to Woodward, Cooper and Miller are covering up possibly criminal leaks, Newsweek did get its Guantánamo story wrong . . .
In each case, though, the focus on some secondary violation has the effect of diverting public attention from the more serious original misdeed. Consider an alternative history in the Newsweek case. What if the Bush-administration source had not misled the magazine? And so the incorrect story did not appear on May 2, and no riots broke out in Afghanistan . . . but then the June 3 Pentagon report on Guantánamo did appear, announcing out of the blue that U.S. guards had kicked, obscenely defaced, and urinated on prisoners’ Korans. Whether Afghans would have rioted we’ll never know—but in any event, the Pentagon would have taken the blame instead of Newsweek. As things turned out, the administration got a twofer, deflecting responsibility for the events at Guantánamo and in Afghanistan and discrediting a pillar of the liberal press. Sweet!


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