Source code.

Source code.

Source code.

Media criticism.
Feb. 28 2005 9:17 PM

Source Code

Dissecting the anonymice that infested President Bush's European tour.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Like insatiable vermin eating and rutting their way through a bulging grain elevator, anonymice continue to multiply in the pages of the top dailies. This proliferation comes despite the public promises made by some newspapers to stamp out—or at least reduce—the number of anonymous sources quoted.

Last year, for instance, the New York Timesand the Washington Postamended their anonymous source guidelines with tighter, more restrictive language. "The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy," asserts the Times policy. "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," reads the Post's.

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Yet not long after the Times reformulated its policy, Daniel Okrent, the paper's public editor, charted an increase in the number of anonymice in the paper. Erik Wemple of Washington City Paper documented a similar explosion of unnamed sources at the Post following its new edict.

Journalists traditionally defend anonymous sourcing with vague assurances that blind comments 1) provide readers with valuable news unobtainable by any other means or 2) give the public a deeper understanding of the issues of day. But for all the promises of red meat, newspapers mostly serve hair balls. This morning, for example, I baited an anonymice trap by querying Nexis for all stories containing the words "senior administration official" and "President Bush" over the past week from America's top dailies. As you may recall, the president toured Europe last week and met with state leaders.

I figured a Nexis dump would trap a few of the contemptible rodents, and I was right. The worst offender over this interval was the Los Angles Times, followed by the New York Times, the Washington Post (owned by the company that owns Slate), the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe. The good news is that I found no infested clips in USA Today, which is more vigilant than most papers in eradicating anonymice, and none in the Wall Street Journal via its subscription site.

As you scan these excerpts, ask yourself: How newsworthy are the anonymous comments? My quick reading? Not very. Then why do newspapers fill themselves with the vapid mouthings of "senior administration officials" every time the president or the secretary of state goes on tour?

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If you're a frustrated member of the press corps and would like to drop a dime on the anonymice cited below, send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com.

New York Times, Feb. 28, by Steven R. Weisman, Dateline: Washington "President Bush said he would listen to the Europeans," [a senior administration official] said. "They have been saying that a signal of support for World Trade Organization and a willingness to sell aircraft parts are two of the things they're looking for. True to the president's word, he is looking at it. But at this point there's no decision."

New York Times, Feb. 28, by Elisabeth Bumiller, Dateline: Washington A senior administration official later said in a background briefing with reporters that the discussions [between Putin and Bush] "never got heated," but the official was not in the room.

Chicago Tribune, Feb. 27, by Evan Osnos, Dateline: Aswan, Egypt "We are hopeful, but until we know exactly what the [Egyptian] government is embracing, it is too early to declare that it is a major change," a senior administration official said.

New York Times, Feb. 27, by Joel Brinkley and David E. Sanger, Dateline: Washington "We have to see the details of the [Egyptian] referendum," a senior administration official said. "We are hopeful, but until we know exactly what the government is embracing, it is too early to declare that it is a major change."

Los Angeles Times, Feb. 27, by Tyler Marshall, Dateline: Washington "I would not say that the two sides are close to a compromise," a senior administration official said in the wake of Bush's meetings in Brussels. "We're at an early stage of an intensive phase of discussions" with the Europeans.

Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26, by Paul Richter, Dateline: Washington A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Rice had recently discussed reform and other issues with the Egyptians and wanted to give them time to make progress before a visit.

Chicago Tribune, Feb. 25, by Mark Silva, Dateline: Bratislava, Slovakia "We all realize that Russia is coming out of a difficult period," the senior administration official said Thursday night, adding that the leaders' "discussion never got heated. ... What we are looking for is some sort of sense of what the end goal really is. I think President Putin laid that out today." …

In addition, the presidents agreed to seek Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization by year's end. "We have very good chances of meeting that goal this year,' the senior administration official said."

Los Angeles Times, Feb. 25, by Edwin Chen and David Holley, Dateline: Bratislava, Slovakia Earlier this week, a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Bush's meeting with French President Jacques Chirac in Brussels described the word "frank" as diplomatic code that usually is "a euphemism for 'bad.' "

Washington Post, Feb. 25, by Michael A. Fletcher and Peter Baker, Dateline: Bratislava Aides said Bush wanted to maintain a "supportive relationship" and considered other issues, such as security, "equally valuable" in the U.S.-Russian dialogue. "The goal here is not to criticize, not to accuse," a senior administration official told reporters under ground rules requiring anonymity. "The goal is to understand and to seek common ground and try to move this relationship forward."

Los Angeles Times, Feb. 24, by Edwin Chen, Dateline: Mainz, Germany Another senior administration official said Wednesday that the White House was pleased by the renewed transatlantic focus on the strategy toward Tehran. "There was a sense last fall that the issue of Iran was becoming more of a difference over tactics between the United States and Europe," he said. "Now, happily, the discussion is focused again on the real problem, which is the nature of Iranian behavior."

Los Angeles Times, Feb. 23, by Patrick J. McDonnell and Paul Richter, Dateline: Baghdad One senior administration official declined to say how U.S. officials viewed [Ibrahim] Jafari. "We have a studied neutrality on that," he said.

New York Times, Feb. 23, by Steven R. Weisman, Dateline: Washington This week, after [Russian] Ambassador [Yuri] Ushakov's written responses [to a list of Times questions] were received, another senior administration official said he was "familiar with the whole Russian whine list" of complaints often directed at the United States' domestic policies.

New York Times, Feb. 23, by Elisabeth Bumiller, Dateline: Brussels "The E.U. has made certain statements, certain declarations about the hypothetical effect of lifting the arms embargo—that is, no increase qualitatively, no increase quantitatively," the senior administration official said in the briefing. "So we would like to know what that means, how this would be enforced, how this would be carried out, in view of the real-world situation."

Washington Post, Feb. 23, by Michael A. Fletcher and Keith B. Richburg, Dateline: Brussels "We're very pleased that we have not only unity in theory, but, on the question of Iraq, for the first time in three years we now have unity of purpose," said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Washington Post, Feb. 22, by Michael A. Fletcher and Keith B. Richburg, Dateline: Brussels "I would say that NATO is more unified today on Iraq, Afghanistan and other major issues in the alliance than at any time in the last three years," a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity. "There is a much better tone."

Boston Globe, Feb. 22, by Susan Milligan, Dateline: Brussels Bush will continue his fence-mending effort today, when he meets separately in Brussels with leaders from NATO and the European Union. A senior administration official said the White House hopes tomorrow to get some commitment from all NATO members to help out in Iraq, either with troops or with training or financial assistance.

Los Angeles Times, Feb. 22, by Edwin Chen, Dateline: Brussels At a November meeting in Santiago, Chile, Bush questioned Putin about his centralization of power. The Russian president's reply consisted of "a very long and detailed explanation" that reached "deep into Russian history," according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Los Angeles Times, Feb. 21, by Edwin Chen, Dateline: Brussels The White House in October began "thinking about" having Bush travel to Europe shortly after the election, according to a senior administration official briefing reporters on Air Force One.

"This is not a case of the United States simply talking about our agenda," the official said. "It's a case of our talking about a common agenda."

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That e-mail address again is pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)