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Welcome to the Sausage Factory


Didn’t White House spokesman Scott McClellan have a point when he said, “Sometimes it’s difficult for the media to critique itself, and it becomes convenient to point to something outside the media”?
Sure, but substitute “administration” for “media” and his critique is even truer. Washington journalists have complained for a decade about the government’s increasing use of “background briefings,” or off-the-record press conferences—anonymous sourcing of an anodyne, Orwell-meets-Kabuki kind. But they all play along.

Haven’t journalists relied on vaguely described anonymous sources forever?
A Times front-page story I picked at random from 1962 (WASHINGTON SEES SOME GAINS IN U.N., by Max Frankel) quoted no one except “administration officials,” plural. I’ll take Okrent’s word for it, though, that based on his more thorough perusal of the Times’ archives, such sourcing “is much more universal now than it was in the sixties.”

So what changed?
C’mon, what changed everything? The late sixties and early seventies and the new anti-Establishment paradigm, which achieved its great and glorious apotheosis in the exposure of the Watergate conspiracy. American democracy was saved by two reporters relying heavily on a single anonymous source—a source so anonymous that not even their editor knew his identity. A former Washington Post reporter, insisting on anonymity, told me he still finds it “odd” and “weird” and “bewildering” that Ben Bradlee didn’t ask Woodward who Deep Throat was until after Nixon resigned.

So half the news is now provided by anonymous sources all because journalists fantasize they are Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman?
And Jason Robards. Post-Watergate, too, the baby boomers’ generational predisposition—skepticism of grown-ups, contempt for polite lies—congealed into a dishy, undiscriminating impulse to knowingness, even when constitutional government was not at stake; if we couldn’t force a president to resign, we could, say, embarrass a CEO or a movie star. And by now almost everyone—journalists and their sources and consumers—is addicted to the sort of information jolts that can only be published without attribution. Even though they all say they disapprove.

Not all—didn’t Woodward just tell the Wall Street Journal that “there’s not enough use of unnamed sources”?
He did, but the quote ran without its full context. What Woodward said, the reporter told me, was that at the present pivotal historical moment, the great danger to America is the formation of some kind of secret, unaccountable government, and so a hyperaggressive press is more important than ever.

Okay, fine, but does the public have a need to know that Katie Couric is high-strung and snappish? A waiter who calls “Page Six” to say that Mary-Kate Olsen didn’t touch her enchiladas is Deep Throat and Richard Johnson is Bob Woodward? Please.
Your view is the line of the chastened journalistic Establishment, which says unnamed sources must be used only when the story is unequivocally consequential rather than merely interesting. “At the very least,” Okrent says, “we can not do it when it’s not important.” Gannett’s policy is the same. And this is the nub of the debate. Do you believe unidentified sources are inherently bad, like sugar or capital punishment, a necessary evil to be used as sparingly as possible (and ideally never at all)? Or that granting anonymity is just one more somewhat unattractive journalistic technique—along with badgering and begging and insincerely flattering sources—that should be used as much as necessary and as carefully as possible? I say the latter.

But the American people don’t trust the media anymore. Okrent says Times readers complained to him about anonymous sources the most.
I think very few people—essentially only the ones complaining to Okrent—have any real opinion on anonymous sources. And I bet most of those use the methodological cavil as a cover for political disagreement, criticizing anonymous sourcing because they object to what some anonymous source has said.

So what you prescribe is . . . nothing at all?
The one easy, bona fide improvement is for more stories to describe unidentified sources in ways that give a reader some glimmer of their motivation for talking. But if overuse of anonymous sourcing has been a problem, the mainstream media are already frantically self-correcting. There is significantly less of it than just two years ago.

The status quo is fine, in other words?
Journalism exists to get us closer to all sorts of truth, and anonymous sources are essential to the endeavor. Even now, they provide more social benefit than they extract in moral costs. I hope the Woodward side prevails. The reporter’s craft isn’t a clinical process. Journalism is like sausage, and if you’re squeamish, it’s better not to see it being made. Responsible journalists will try to make sausages that aren’t contaminated or dangerous. And some of us will prefer to make and eat kosher or organic sausages—but only some of us. “Stuff happens,” as Rumsfeld says. “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes [but] they’re also free . . . to do wonderful things.”


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