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.
Just as anonymous sources shop the information to the news organization that will give them the best ride, informants can shop their information to the best bidder—the local patrolman, the local sergeant, a detective, the state police, the DEA, the FBI, or the ATF.
What do both anonymous source and informant say to journalist and cop after they've spilled important beans? "You've got to protect me on this." Whether they like it or not, journalists and cops become invested in their sources and informants, and as the relationship ages, the investment turns into dependence. I don't know if Connolly started off crooked or if he pimped himself out in increments until there was no moral daylight between him and Bulger. I doubt that many reporters commence their source relationships thinking that politicians may eventually own them—or even sense it when they become the pol's property. I so hate it when reporters refer to "My candidate" or to "my sources." Don't they know who is property and who is the real owner?
These relationships—like your relationship with your plumber or your auto mechanic—are fraught with deception and double-dealing. If you dispense information for favors or protection, you must always keep a stash hidden, because the time will come when you'll need it to buy your way out of a jam or to purchase a favor. In other words, neither a source nor an informant has an incentive to tell all, but both have every incentive to dribble out information slowly and incompletely to keep the recipient captive.
But, of course, it's a two-sided game. Journalists and cops can always rattle their sources and informants by implying that they know more than they do. They can also blackmail their sources and informants by saying that they're going to write a story or file for an arrest warrant based on what they know—and then wait for the reaction. If properly played, the gambit will force sources and informants to sing like Ethel Merman.
I'm not saying that no anonymous source and no police informant can be trusted or that all dealings with sources and informants are inherently corrupt—just that all information-trading relationships can be easily corrupted. Have you looked at your marriage lately?
Don't you dare look at my marriage. Send your most valuable secrets to me via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or watch me lip-synch Cole Porter tunes on my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)