Here's a fresh way to look at anonymous sources: They're like police informants, only nobody is threatening them with prison if they don't talk.
I had this breakthrough yesterday after learning that the FBI had apprehended longtime gangster fugitive—and former FBI informant—James "Whitey" Bulger in Santa Monica, Calif., where he was living modestly near the beach.
Bulger, who ran Boston's Irish mob, became a confidant of FBI agent John Connolly in 1975, agreeing to feed him damaging information about the Italian mob. The mobster remained Connolly's informant for decades, as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reported in 2008.
"Bulger provided tips that helped the FBI tackle its top priority—dismantling the Italian mob—and Connolly protected Bulger from investigations by the FBI and other agencies," Temple-Raston writes. Although it was an unspoken agreement, Connolly understood that it was in his interests to prevent Bulger from going to jail so he could keep ratting out the Italians.
The obvious difference between your average anonymous journalistic source and a police informant like Whitey Bulger is that your average source doesn't commission murders, as Bulger stands accused of doing. But you catch my drift: The source/informant gives information to the journalist/cop for a set of complex reasons. For example, the source/informant has a rival he hopes to ruin. By tipping off a journalist/cop, he accomplishes three goals at once. He eliminates his rival. By signaling his usefulness to the journalist/cop, he turns the short-term exchange into a potentially long-term relationship, which provides him with protection and influence. And finally, because it's difficult to ask a source/informant a question without giving them some information, he makes the journalist/cop his passive informant.
Although the relationship made Connolly a star within the FBI, Bulger was its main beneficiary, even though Connolly was on the mob payroll: Bulger used Connolly's tips to avoid stings, stave off prosecutions, acquire power, and gain influence. Connolly even alerted Bulger to his impending arrest in 1995, making it possible for him to flee. Connolly was ultimately charged and convicted for second-degree murder for his role in the killing of businessman John Callahan.
That collaborations between sources and journalists rarely result in murder is something for which we can all be grateful. But the parallels are too many to ignore. Like cops, journalists become tethered to their sources of information. The source's health becomes the journalist's health. A reporter assigned to cover a governor or a senator with presidential potential would be short-sheeting his career by savaging his subject. Better to ride the escalator up with the politician and his staff from the statehouse to the White House.
Meanwhile, the astute politician (businessman, celebrity, sports star, academic, etc.) or members of his staff know the value of having a trusted reporter who can convey both good and bad news to the public. If news is sourced anonymously, the public never need be any the wiser about how and why the stories were planted.
Connolly's supervisor told him explicitly that information could flow only one way, from Bulger to Connolly. That was a ridiculous expectation. Because almost every question contains valuable information, the astute politician (or informant) can also use reporters to prospect for intelligence by asking questions about the reporter's (or cop's) questions. A dumb reporter will tell the politician everything he knows to get an answer to the question he's asked. The smart reporter will act dumb and put the ball back into the politician's court and hope the politician still takes his next phone call.
The average cop can't realistically hope to benefit from his informant relationship the way Connolly did—he pocketed $235,000 in bribes. Nor can a small-town cop really expect to follow a small-time hood into the big leagues of organized crime as a small state reporter can follow a governor to Washington. But learning how to work paid snitches can earn a police officer the promotions he craves, so he starts handling bigger cases and heavier informants.