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.

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Rockville, Md.: What are your thoughts about the New Yorker cover with Sen. Obama and his wife? Does it qualify as satire? Wouldn't it be better if it came out perhaps after the general election?

Jack Shafer: I defended The New Yorker cover in this piece in Slate on Monday. I prefer a press that serves strong images that make you think to a pussy-footing press that worries that it might offended somebody. I don't think The New Yorker should worry about the timing of its covers. Any time is a good time for an illustration that sends up the crazy conspiracy theories about the Obamas.

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Waldorf, Md.: Either the editor of The New Yorker seriously overestimates the intelligence of the American people, or he's trying to sway the election. How can he not see that this satire will be (indeed already is being) used on Web sites, blogs and in e-mails far and wide to support the untruths that have been spread about Obama for many months now?

I'm really torn because I rarely support any kind of censorship, but I believe this election is too important and there aren't enough voices to shout down the growing belief that Obama is a Muslim who will open the doors to terrorists. Where's the horrible caricature of McCain? When I see that on the cover of the New Yorker, I'll believe that this is only about satire.

Jack Shafer: If The New Yorker did anything, it got more people talking about the Muslim rumors. For a couple of days there, you couldn't turn on your TV or radio without hearing somebody go on about the topic. And across the board, what did they all say? That The New Yorker was sending up the rumors. Even the people who criticized the magazine for running the illustration understood that it was a send-up. Maybe the up-shot of the illustration is that by making the rumors Topic 1 for a week, it will have debunked them. Then again, some people still think FDR allowed Japan to bomb Pearl Harbor.

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Chicago: Hey Jack—I have the Press Box on RSS so I never miss a column. The things I like most about you are your disdain of the genocidal tyrant Rupert Murdoch, your approving quotations of Alexander Cockburn and defense of cannabinoids. My question is simple: Why don't you have Howard Kurtz's job? Maybe MSNBC needs a media critic. Keep up the good work.

Jack Shafer: I couldn't possible do Kurtz's job unless I had a staff of 20 working for me. The guy is a machine and has been running on all 12 cylinders on the press beat for almost 20 years. As for cannabinoids, don't mistake my criticism of drug reporting for a pot habit. I happen to have never smoked or eaten the stuff. Honest!

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Orange County, Calif.: When will you write a column condemning the hatred spewing from the uber-left about the passing of a really decent human being: Tony Snow?

Jack Shafer: I don't think I've seen a hatred-spewing article from the left or elsewhere. People have criticized him, and that's all to the good. The obligation to speak the truth shouldn't pause when somebody has died.

I knew Snow, first meeting him when he worked at the editorial page editor of the Washington Times. He always treated me with respect, and I liked him. Given his taste for open debate, I don't think he would have wanted people to button their lips just because he had died. Better that people say what's on their minds than speak pious lies (I think I.F. Stone said that long ago).

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Washington: Why does the media report so little about the connection between the oil company agendas and the occupation of Iraq?

Jack Shafer: I'm not sure what the question here is. I've seen lots of good work recently about the favoritism given to U.S. oil companies as Iraq reopens exploration and extraction of its fields.

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Chicago: For the past six months the markets have played the bank death-spiral watch. When will the media death-spiral watch get going with full gusto? Which is going down first, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Newsweek, Chicago Sun-Times or another outlet?

Jack Shafer: Charles Layton of the American Journalism Review recently predicted that the San Francisco Chronicle would be the first big-city, monopoly daily to shut down. It's supposedly losing $60 million a year.

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LalitaZ: Re: New Yorker Cover, John Dickerson identified "taking umbrage" as "this year's hottest campaign tactic" but it's more than that—it's become our national pastime.

Jack Shafer: How dare you say that, LalitaZ?! I'm so offended by your heartless comment that I'm going to pout for five minutes.

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Rockville, Md.: Yes, freedom of speech and artistic expression are important, but this New Yorker cover also brings to mind the time Michael Dukakis was asked about what he would do if his wife was raped, and the time John Kerry was questioned if he believed there was a genetic basis for sexual orientation. Do you think there is a parallel?

Jack Shafer: If you're in the arena, you're in the arena. Both questions you cite were perfectly valid questions for the press to ask.

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Chico, Calif.: It kind of scares me that the above college student finds unnamed sources one of the sexiest things about the prospect of reporting professionally. In my humble experience, this should be seen as a last resort ... not a temptation or an ambition. But when do we cross the line?

Jack Shafer: I agree that anonymous sources should be used sparingly. In my Slate piece, I make an exception for the anonymous sourcing of national security stories, such as the New York Times' piece on the NSA wiretaps and the Post's story on the secret CIA prisons. In both cases, the newspapers had numerous anonymous sources, had gone the distance in confirming the substance of the allegations, and had given the government a chance to respond. One of the tests for me when I read an anonymously sourced article is this: based on the published story, could another reporter replicate its findings. If they can (and I think they could have in the NSA and CIA stories) I'm not as critical.

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Basking Ridge, N.J.: Do you think it has become harder for people (officials, high-level employees) to speak freely about sensitive subjects? In other words, in recent decades (let's say, since Watergate), have employers been taking more stringent lines with their workers talking to reporters?

Jack Shafer: My totally subjective take would be no. I don't have a good idea for a test that would give us a rock-solid answer.

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Re: San Francisco's paper: What happens if it melts down and collapses? Not sure that the Federal Reserve would say it's "too big to fail," so what happens to San Francisco?

Jack Shafer: Just because the Chronicle goes down doesn't mean that nothing would rise to occupy some of its space. The Media News chain owns a bunch of dailies encircling the city. Surely they'd jump in.

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Chicago: Could you explain further why you almost fully exempt war zone reporters regarding anonymice? Of course the source has reason to fear retribution, but doesn't it give reporters a greater chance to use them the wrong way?

Jack Shafer: My tolerance for anonymously sourced stories from war zones only goes as far as what the journalist is reporting. If he reports, based on his unnamed U.S. military source, that eight soldiers died, that number will be checkable at some point in the future. I'm less tolerant of war-zone reporters who file dispatches that are so vague or anecdotal that nobody will ever be able to verify the information. But I don't see much of that by the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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Seattle: Great article and, as a Wikipedia fan, a great idea to include a tool for reporting particularly bad anonymous source reporting. What's next? Do you really imagine that it will shame reporters and editors to do something more?

Jack Shafer: Yeah, I sorta think so. Both the Columbia Journalism Review and Portfolio have followed my piece about anonymice this week with their own pieces. Both criticize the way I tracked anonymice in the Wall Street Journal, so I'm refining my technique for a follow-up piece today. So please visit Slate later and read it.

Thanks to everybody who submitted questions. I'm out of time, my fingers tips are bleeding, and I worry that in the hour I spent with you Howie Kurtz wrote five articles, two books, and produced several TV shows. Damn you, Kurtz!

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