Ratting out the anonymice.

Media criticism.
June 15 2004 6:45 PM

Ratting Out the Anonymice

Offended by anonymous sources? Turn them in. To me.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Despite the fact that nobody in American journalism professes to like anonymous sources, they keep replicating in newspapers like flesh-eating bacteria. In recent months, both the Washington Post and New York Times have acknowledged the contagion and tried to spritz the anonymice away with tough new memos from the top, dictating the proper use of anonymous sources.

But anonymous sources are as resistant to extermination as their microbe cousins, as two press observers recently noted. Last Sunday (June 13), New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent reported the results of a before-and-after census of anonymous sources in Times "Section A" stories. The sample months were December (before the memo) and April (after), and Okrent's findings won't astound you: There was a slight up-tick in anonymous sources in the post-memo period.

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In April, Washington City Paper's Erik Wemple  gave similar scrutiny to the Washington Post after it reformulated its sourcing rules. The Post memo implored reporters and editors to avoid the vanilla attribution to "sources" and "informed sources," stating a preference for more specificity. The memo states:

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."

Wemple applied the before-and-after yardstick to the "sources familiar with" constructionin the Post and found (no surprise) an increase in this species of anonymice. In other words, Posties read the new memo as an invitation to increase the number of anonymous sources in the paper as long as they were more elaborately identified. Wrote Wemple, "… 'sources familiar with' seems poised to overtake 'senior administration official' and 'Brookings Institution scholar' as the iconic three-word phrase of the Washington Post."

Why can't reporters wean themselves from their overreliance on anonymous sources? The last time I wrapped my mind around this subject, I portrayed Washington reporters as victims: The surplus of journalists and the relative scarcity of knowledgeable sources allow the sources to pick the rules of engagement. If a reporter insists that a source put the information on the record, the source can always say, "Screw you" and shop it to a publication that will agree to anonymity. If what the source has to say is true and newsworthy, he'll find a market. The advantage held by knowledgeable anonymice reduces the likelihood that Washington journalists will ever decrease the number of anonymous sources, let alone eliminate them.

I argued in the same column that news organizations could reduce their dependence on anonymous sources by following the example of the Wall Street Journal: The Journal hasn't eradicated anonymous sources, but it keeps their population under control by giving reporters latitude to assert the truth on their own authority. Okrent came close to endorsing this approach on Sunday, asking, "Finally, it's worth reconsidering the entire nature of reportorial authority and responsibility. In other words, why quote anonymous sources at all? Do their words take on more credibility because they're flanked with quotation marks?"

I haven't changed my mind since my last anonymous-sources cogitation, but I have come up with a few new ideas on the subject. Anonymous sources appeal to those reporters and readers who believe—perversely—that anonymity conveys truthfulness. In their minds, the further a source distances himself from the information, the more honest he'll be. This attitude dovetails perfectly with the widely held viewpoint—correct, I might add—that most official, on-the-record comments are bull. Nearly all speeches, press conferences, press releases, interviews, and all other formal presentations are now thought by the press to be clever lies. Meanwhile, back-corridor whisperings are considered to be candid, spontaneous, surreptitious, and therefore true. Perhaps if officials spoke more honestly when on the record, there would be less demand for anonymous comments. But that's a proposition we won't get to test as long as the Bush administration reigns.

Journalists have become so comfortable with anonymous sourcing that they're often the first ones to propose it. When reporters interview me about press controversies, I'm frank to the point of self-destruction. But about half the time, impatient journalists will interrupt themselves and invite me to "go on background." This is their shorthand for "You're not giving me anything that's very quotable, nor are you likely to. Say something absolutely scurrilous, and I'll credit it to 'a Washington observer' or 'a press critic.' " Either these reporters have conditioned their sources to go off the record, or their sources have conditioned them. Or both. Any way you look at it, it's depressing.

The proliferation of anonymice reflects how much of Washington journalism has become a collaboration between news organizations and official sources. Example: If the Pentagon—or other federal bureaucracy—plans to roll out a big new initiative at 5 p.m., it calls all the reporters covering the beat to an early afternoon "background briefing." There it dispenses the essentials of the story to reporters so they 1) can alert their editors to the impending story and 2) be brought up to speed on the subject by the background briefer. The briefer embargos the information until the 5 p.m. announcement and permits the information—but not his precise words—to be attributed to a "senior official" or some such. This frees him from having to speak with textbook precision, and it also preserves the Official Word for his boss, the secretary of defense. The last thing Donald Rumsfeld wants is for the briefer to spin a wittier sound bite.

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