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!
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.”