Jack Shafer takes readers' questions about anonymous sources in the news.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
July 17 2008 5:23 PM

Secret Identities

Jack Shafer takes readers' questions about anonymous sources, The New Yorker cover, and media criticism.

Slate media critic and Editor-at-Large Jack Shafer chatted with readers about his new project to track anonymous sources in the news, his take on The New Yorker's Obama cover, and other media issues. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Harrisburg, Pa.: If you are aware that someone is a covert CIA agent whose identity may be sought by a terrorist group, should you (or hypothetically the New York Times) print the name of a covert agent whose life might then be in danger? What was the New York Times's justification for printing such a name, and do you find that justification plausible?

Jack Shafer: You're not describing the New York Times story accurately. The CIA officer in question was not a covert officer. Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt provides the details in this July 6 article about the controversy.

I think the Times did the right thing in identifying the officer. I agree with Hoyt, who wrote, "I understand how readers can think that if there is any risk at all, a person like Martinez should never be identified. But going in that direction, especially in this age of increasing government secrecy, would leave news organizations hobbled when trying to tell the public about some of the government's most important and controversial actions."

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A federal law prohibits publications from routinely disclosing the names of covert officers, but to my knowledge no publication has ever been charged. It's called the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, and your can read the text of it here.

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Basking Ridge, N.J.: In my experience as a college reporter, I haven't dealt with anonymity much at all. I hope I do some day. Obviously, it's one of the sexiest, most dangerous sounding things about reporting. Is that a good thing? I don't know. If newspapers can't avoid anonymous sources entirely—and they can't—there should be a renewed effort to "tag" these sources better.

You can groan at ambiguity (i.e. "the source" or even "former military official"), but I think you can respect "a lawyer with intimate knowledge of the case and attorneys involved." A "former military official" could be my buddy's grandpa who's a WWII vet, right? (Not that it would be.) Of course, an anonymous source will stipulate that the tag be vague enough that they cannot be identified, but my suspicion is that once anonymity is granted, journalists aren't as vigilant demanding a specific tag as they might be for, say, initially persuading a source to go on the record.

Jack Shafer: One reason there are so many anonymously sourced news stories in New York and Washington publications is because reporters outnumber good sources by a wide margin there, giving sources more leverage in dictating the terms of engagement. In small towns where there are fewer reporters and they're outnumbered by sources, the reporters tend to do the dictating. You generally see fewer anonymously sourced article there.

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maddogdaugherty: It looks like the Los Angeles Times is finding it difficult to comply with its own set of ethical guidelines. Sure, many important stories (Watergate, for example) have relied on information from anonymous sources, but anonymity is also used as a crutch—or worse—by some reporters. Let's not forget about those who have fabricated sources altogether, which has happened in both Timeses and other prominent newspapers.

As for the editors, take more responsibility when it comes to anonymice. I say get 'em out of your house before they eat up all of the insulation and you're left standing within drafty walls that nobody wants to visit. Credibility is one the line.

Jack Shafer: You're talking my language!

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Lincoln, Neb.: Am I correct in my perception that the media is paying alot more attention to Obama's flip-flops than McCain's flip-flops? If so, I don't think that's fair, because McCain has changed his position on a whole host of core issues like the Bush tax cuts, Roe v. Wade and immigration. Thank you for your response.

Jack Shafer: I haven't studied the flip-flop numbers in this campaign, but if you go back and look at previous presidential campaigns, the presumptive nominee tends to flip and flop all the way to the convention to broaden his appeal.

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Mount Vernon, N.Y.: How will you look back on the media's record these past 10 years or so? Do you agree with Halperin that Drudge is the Walter Cronkite of our time, setting the standard for the rest of you? Are you happy about that?

Jack Shafer: Two questions there. 1) I think the last 10 years have produced some remarkable reporting that equals or surpassing any other decade-long stretch. 2) Drudge doesn't set the standard and I don't think Cronkite did, either. Journalism is too big a field to have one trend-setter.

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Arlington, Va.: Nice job by the New Yorker to increase sales. If no one said anything about the cover, it would not have been a problem. Not too many independents and blue-collar males read the New Yorker!

Jack Shafer: I agree with you that the media reaction to the New Yorker cover was over the top. My colleague here at Slate, John Dickerson, believes that the presidential candidates have honed the "taking umbrage" act for political reasons. It's always easier to raise campaign funds when you're portraying yourself as a victim of media meanies or trash talking politicians.