Anonymity for sources shouldn’t come cheap

A scene from
A scene from "All the President's Men"

The granting of anonymity in political journalism has always been a source of confusion and concern.

But the dynamics are even more fraught when the White House is awash in chaos, misdirection, and lies.

Are reporters getting valuable information in return for the anonymity they grant? Should they be granting anonymity so freely? Are they getting lied to by the people to whom they are granting anonymity? What should they do when the people to whom they have granted anonymity lie to them?

Anonymity, in its ideal form, protects sources who tell the truth from retribution from the bosses who don’t want the public to know the truth.

But it is rarely found in its ideal form in political journalism, where anonymity is commonly used by sources to float trial balloons, settle scores, spin the news in their or their boss’s favor, or just flat-out lie. That’s at the best of times.

For the media, granting anonymity makes getting people to talk a lot easier. But publishing what anonymous sources say is essentially vouching for their credibility, because readers have no way of judging it on their own. It also means the sources can avoid accountability of any kind for what they said, including if they lied.

And if there’s one thing we know about Trump and his enablers, it’s that they lie all the time.

Granting Anonymity Is a Show of Faith

In a 2016 memo to his newsroom announcing (yet another) stricter policy on anonymous sources, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet acknowledged that “the appearance of anonymous sources in routine government and political stories, as well as many other enterprise and feature stories, also tests our credibility with readers.” He explained:

Material from anonymous sources should be “information,” not just spin or speculation. It should be “newsworthy,” not just color or embellishment. And it should be information we consider “reliable” — ideally because we have additional corroboration, or because we know that the source has first-hand, direct knowledge. Our level of skepticism should be high and our questions pointed. Without a named source, readers may see The Times as vouching for the information unequivocally — or, worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.

Most laughably, Baquet wrote that “[s]ources who demand anonymity give up the opportunity to have their speculation or interpretation reflected in our stories.” That happens all the time.

Washington Post regulations also set out bold goals with weak and unenforced guidelines:

We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence. Our obligation is to serve readers, not sources. This means avoiding attributions to “sources” or “informed sources.” Instead we should try to give the reader something more, such as “sources familiar with the thinking of defense lawyers in the case,” or “sources whose work brings them into contact with the county executive,” or “sources on the governor’s staff who disagree with his policy.”

Current Practice

In reality, more stories than I can count in the Times, the Post, and other major publications are simply attributed to “aides” — as in, “aides said.”

Writing about Trump in the New York Times in late September 2019, Maggie Haberman, Michael Crowley and Katie Rogers wrote that “his anger and anxiousness took over his day, aides said.”

Also: “Aides said they thought Democrats had gone too far.”

Also: “Some of Mr. Trump’s allies said he saw impeachment as a good political opportunity that would result in a backlash against the Democrats. At the same time, several people close to Mr. Trump said he did not want to be the third president in American history, after Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, to be impeached.”

Finally: “The aides believe that Mr. Giuliani, eager to land something that would please Mr. Trump, had gotten too far out on a limb. And they cringed at his television appearances.”

Another incredibly common phenomenon these days is the major behind-the-scenes story where the reporters essentially claim omniscience – and if they explain their sourcing at all, they simply assert that they talked to a lot of people.

Peter Baker, Eric Schmitt and Michael Crowley, for instance, led their September 2019 story like this:

By the time President Trump met with congressional leaders on the afternoon of June 20, he had already decided to retaliate against Iran for shooting down an American surveillance drone. But for once, he kept his cards close to the vest, soliciting advice rather than doing all of the talking.

And it wasn’t until eight paragraphs later that the reporters explained how they knew all this:

This account of that day in June is based on interviews with White House aides, Pentagon officials, military officers, American and foreign diplomats, members of Congress and outside presidential advisers, most of whom asked not to be identified describing private conversations.

Julian E. Barnes, Adam Goldman and David E. Sanger wrote in September 2019 about the CIA’s recruitment, work, and extradition of a Russian official. After four paragraphs expressing complete certainty about the sequence of events, the reporters provided this sourcing:

This article is based on interviews in recent months with current and former officials who spoke on the condition that their names not be used discussing classified information.

Because of course intelligence sources can always be trusted implicitly!

The omniscience sometimes even carries to what was going on inside Donald Trump’s own brain.

Washington Post reporters Toluse Olorunnipa, Josh Dawsey, Karoun Demirjian and Dan Lamothe wrote in June 2019:

The plans had been drawn, the targets set, and a single word from the commander in chief would have activated the U.S. military to strike a foreign adversary. But President Trump was having second thoughts.

Trump asked “crucial questions” that led to his reversal, they reported, when it’s equally or more likely that Trump’s internal drama, whatever it was, had more to do with his narcissism, cowardice, and complete lack of strategy.  Their sourcing?

This account of how Trump approved and then abruptly canceled a military operation against Iran is based on interviews with more than 25 White House officials, lawmakers, congressional aides, military officials and others familiar with the process. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The undisputed king of omniscient narration based on anonymous sources is, of course, Bob Woodward.

But as Columbia Journalism Review writer Pete Vernon pointed out in his review of Woodward’s book “Fear” in September 2018, it’s an always-problematic formula that is particularly futile today, as “no group of officials in recent memory has proved as willing to bend the truth as those in the Trump administration.” Vernon explained:

Woodward’s approach hasn’t changed; the climate in which his sources are viewed has. Every administration is filled with people who have an agenda, who want to spin events in their favor, but the lines of credibility have shifted. In taking on the Trump presidency as his topic, Woodward is left to assemble a reliable book from unreliable sources.

Back in June, Baker, Haberman and Thomas Gibbons-Neff – or perhaps a particularly conscientious editor – inserted a rare paragraph acknowledging the obvious: that what really happens inside the Trump White House (not to mention Trump’s brain) is essentially unknowable:

The full story of how Mr. Trump set in motion an attack on another country and then canceled it remained to some extent shrouded in mystery even to some of those involved, according to interviews with administration officials, military officers and lawmakers, many of whom asked not to be named.

Case in point:

On the day after the aborted strike, multiple, seemingly conflicting accounts emerged and the White House made no effort to reconcile them, choosing to stay silent about the deliberations.

But the practical effect on coverage in the Times or elsewhere was nil. Omniscience resumed unabated,

More than any other reporter, Axios’s Jonathan Swan has made a career of running exclusives from people with no credibility.

He knows that the folks who hand him “exclusives” are not brave whistleblowers doing a public service by exposing the truth, but rather people who know he will play his role in their game of attention-getting score-settling.

And how do I know Swan knows this? He wrote a whole article about it for Axios in May 2018. Why do you leak? He asked his White House sources.

“To be honest, it probably falls into a couple of categories,” one current White House official tells me. “The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there’s an accurate record of what’s really going on in the White House.”…

The most common substantive leaks are the result of someone losing an internal policy debate,” a current senior administration official told me. “By leaking the decision, the loser gets one last chance to kill it with blowback from the public, Congress or even the President.”…

A former senior White House official who turned leaking into an art form made a slightly more nuanced defense of the practice. “Leaking is information warfare; it’s strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores,” the source said.…

Another former administration official said grudges have a lot to do with it. “Any time I leaked, it was out of frustration with incompetent or tone-deaf leadership,” the former official said.

This actually overlooks another major impetus for Trump White House leak: The trial balloon. Trial balloons are planted leaks (or “pleaks“) to test public reaction to a policy proposal – with the added benefit that they reduce the shock element and make it feel like old news once the proposal is formally announced. It was a tried and true White House tactic long before Trump. But it’s never been used to float such abhorrent proposals.

And when he’s given a pleak, Swan runs with it — rather than being skeptical. It makes better clickbait that way. For instance, in Swann’s story Scoop: Trump’s obsession with the “terrible” FBI building, Swan writes admiringly about Trump’s desire to micromanage the rebuilding of the downtown FBI headquarters – while missing the obvious story, which is that Trump blocked a plan to move the FBI elsewhere, which would have made room for a luxury hotel that would have competed with his own.

And lest you think Swan is simply naïve, the fact is that he knows better. I know this because he posted (and later deleted) this tweet: “They also lie on background. A lot.”

Sources Abusing Anonymity

CNN anchor Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) tweeted in July 2019 that House Democrats were conflicted about how strongly to defend the “Squad” of four minority women in their caucus. Tapper wrote that “they spoke under condition of anonymity so they could be candid.”

Judd Legum (@JuddLegum), the former founding editor-in-chief of ThinkProgress who now writes a paid political newsletter called Popular Information, did not buy that explanation:

Atlantic staff writer Conor Friedersdorf (@conor64) used U.S. officials’ lies about an airstrike of an Afghan hospital as a peg for a story about the U.S. military’s propensity to lie  about things that don’t make them look good. He argued:

If U.S. officials have accurate information that makes America look better than “no comment,” they’ll go on the record if there is no other way to get it out. And if they’re unwilling to put their names behind a story that seems to serve their interests? That should raise red flags. Those stories often turn out to be misleading and constitute the least defensible sort of anonymity that is regularly granted.

That seemed to me like one of the biggest takeaways from the recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, which included cover-up after cover-up. But it didn’t stick.

Fury about political sources abusing anonymity boiled over into Twitter in July 2019, after Jonathan Martin of the New York Times tweeted about a “mass email” that he and others received from a House staffer who prefaced their comments by announcing: “ON BACKGROUND AS A SENIOR DEMOCRATIC AIDE ASSOCIATED WITH THE BLUE DOG COALITION”. The staffer then proceeded to denigrate Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Martin didn’t identify the source, but someone forwarded the email to Libby Watson (@libbycwatson), then of Splinter News, who identified its sender as Brooke Lillard, the communications director for the Blue Dog Coalition. Watson wrote, in an article headlined “Stop Being a Tool for Asshole Anonymous Sources“:

The thing is that a source can’t unilaterally declare something on background or off the record. It’s supposed to be the result of an explicit agreement between the source and the reporter.

She continued:

There is a big difference between political journalism that explains and contextualizes internal battles going on in the Democratic Party and Hill gossip pieces that make the media its battleground to wage those internal battles. When congressional aides give you a quote, they’re probably using you to advance their boss’ or their own interests. That’s what they’re paid to do, and it’s unavoidable. But sometimes there’s other value in printing what they’re saying; other times, like this one, it does nothing but advance their agenda.

Some Washington insiders, like those who model themselves after the late NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, are so enabling of sources that their conversations are presumptively off the record.

But as Adam Weinstein, the national security editor at the New Republic, explained:

Ben Terris, writing for the Washington Post’s Style section in August 2018, provided a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up set piece in how Trumpian sources – in this case, Kellyanne Conway – try to revise rules about sourcing even in midstream:

Here’s a conversation from a few days after our walk:

Me: You told me you found [George’s tweets] disrespectful.

Kellyanne: It is disrespectful, it’s a violation of basic decency, certainly, if not marital vows . . . as “a person familiar with their relationship.”

Me: No, we’re on the record here. You can’t say after the fact “as someone familiar.”

Kellyanne: I told you everything about his tweets was off the record.

Me: No, that’s not true. That never happened.

Kellyanne: Well, people do see it this way. People do see it that way, I don’t say I do, but people see it that way.

Me: But I’m saying we never discussed everything about his tweets being off the record. There are certain things you said that I put off the record.

Kellyanne: Fine. I’ve never actually said what I think about it and I won’t say what I think about it, which tells you what I think about it.

The Need for Clearer (and Tougher) Ground Rules

As Corey Hutchins (@CoreyHutchins), a journalism instructor at Colorado College and Columbia Journalism Review correspondent noted in June, the rules about anonymous sources are neither intuitive nor universally agreed upon:

One condition reporters should explicitly set in any agreement to grant anonymity is that if they find that the source has deliberately lied to them, the deal is off, and they will be exposed.

Legendary former editor Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (@TomRosenstiel), who now runs the American Press Institute, wrote in 2001 in their seminal text, “The Elements of Journalism,” that journalists should expect veracity from their sources. They noted:

A growing number of journalists believe that if a source who has been granted anonymity is found to have misled the reporter, the sources’ identity should be revealed. Part of the bargain of anonymity is truthfulness.

The same language appeared in the revised version of the book, 13 years later.

 

 

Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor), a prolific writer on media and technology and director of News Co/Lab at Arizona State University, gave this advice to reporters in 2015: “the next time you get burned by these people, burn them back.”

Sam Husseini (@samhusseini) wrote an article for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) in 2017 that includes many examples of abuse of anonymous sources. He concluded:

The Gordian knot of deceptive anonymous sources must be cut. That is virtually impossible to do without exposing such sources’ identities, when warranted—unless outlets in the news business would rather be in the disinformation business.

The only example I can think of where this actually happened was when the Washington Post outed a woman who had made a false claim to reporters with the evident intent of entrapping them.  At that point, they reported her previously off-the-record comments.

“We always honor ‘off-the-record’ agreements when they’re entered into in good faith,” said Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor. “But this so-called off-the-record conversation was the essence of a scheme to deceive and embarrass us. The intent by Project Veritas clearly was to publicize the conversation if we fell for the trap. Because of our customary journalistic rigor, we weren’t fooled, and we can’t honor an ‘off-the-record’ agreement that was solicited in maliciously bad faith.”

But that should be the case for powerful, connected sources who deliberately mislead as well.

New York University journalism professor Dan Fagin (@danfagin) explained the options:

And here’s an easy rule for reporters to honor: Don’t quote anonymous sources uttering non-responsive bullshit. Consider this atrocity that Tom Hamburger wrote for the Washington Post in May 2019:

A Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the attorney general’s thinking, said that in his 40-year career, Barr “has been a respected and leading legal voice and his views reflect mainstream conservative legal thought.”

Reporters should forget about all the detailed – and often laughably naïve – policy statements from editors. They just need to remember one simple thing: granting anonymity is a two-way contract and should only come in return for delivering information of value to the public.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.