Opinion

Jack Shafer

Who to believe? The Times’s anonymous sources or the Journal’s?

By Jack Shafer
June 19, 2014

U.S. President Obama speaks about the situation in Iraq at the White House

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal staked mutually exclusive territories on Wednesday in their coverage of the Obama administration’s plans to arrest or temper the Sunni militant rampage in Iraq, the essence of which was captured in their headlines.

“Obama Is Said to Consider Selective Airstrikes on Sunni Militants,” wrote the Times, bending the president into an action-figure’s warrior stance. Meanwhile, the Journal portrayed the president as a thoughtful, let’s-consider-all-the-alternatives sort of leader, with its categorical headline reading, “U.S. Rules Out Iraq Airstrikes for Now: President Barack Obama Is Opting to Pursue Alternate Strategies.”

“Dueling headlines” sprout in the pages of major newspapers with such frequency that you could run a semi-regular column juxtaposing them for a laugh, as the Michael Kinsley-era New Republic once did. The news quarrels with itself for dozens of reasons: two outlets might interpret fresh economic data differently or disagree about the deeper meaning of a new judicial opinion. In other instances, a simpler explanation suffices: One news organization got it right and the other wrong.

But in Wednesday’s Times and Journal face-off, it’s not so much the newspapers that are doing the quarreling but their anonymous sources. Tabulating the precise number of anonymous sources behind the Times and Journal stories is like counting a bag full of angry silver eels in the dark. No sooner do you get your hands on one than it wriggles away. By the time you regain your grip you can’t be sure you’re counting the same eel or a new one.

For instance, the unnamed silver eels whispering to the Times in this particular story include:

“a senior administration official” (cited six times)

“a senior official” (once, although it could be the “senior administration official”)

“current and former administration officials”

“a former American general who fought in Iraq” (twice)

“officials” (it’s anybody’s guess whether the officials are unique or reheated from earlier in the story)

and “current and former United State military officials”

At least eight sources, but perhaps more? In the Journal‘s corner we find a similar counting quandary:

“Officials”

“a senior administration official” (four times)

“senior U.S. officials”

“officials”

“U.S. officials”

“U.S. officials”

“officials”

“One senior U.S. official”

“current and former officials”

“a U.S. official”

“government officials”

and “Officials”

Three unique sources? Six? Nine? Pass the wine because I don’t really know.

Now either the Times story or the Journal story can be correct. The president can’t be considering airstrikes and ruling them out at the same time, after all. If we want to be generous about it, perhaps the stories end up dueling because the Times and the Journal did their reporting on either side of the point at which selective-strike planning gave way to a no-strikes position, or the other way around (although I doubt it). Also, both stories might be wrong! The president’s thinking may occupy a pole-less, all-equator planet that provides all the non-binary latitude he desires, and he is neither planning nor ruling out airstrikes.

Please don’t brand me a conspiracist for the long-shot speculation that the government’s anonymous sources deliberately fed one set of misinformation to the Times and another to the Journal so that the Sunni rebel commanders, upon reading their morning newspapers over tea, won’t know whether to plan for clear skies or several weeks in a bunker. Other administrations have won diplomatic results by rattling the saber from behind the curtain in a way the press will hear and report.

Which story to believe? Strong feelings about the general accuracy of one paper over the other, or of the reputations of the reporters on the stories may guide your decision. I’m stumped. When publications build their articles on foundations of anonymous sources asserting “facts” that you have no way to verify independently, it’s really a crap shoot.

We won’t know whether the Times or the Journal got it right unless the bombs fly (soon) or somebody goes on the record convincingly — or the Times and the Journal follow up and answer the question of which publication got it right. News outlets that live by the anonymous source must be willing to die by them, preferably throwing themselves on their own sword when their sources mislead them.

(Reuters, which employs me, relies on anonymous sources, too. Its story about the possibility of an airstrike, “U.S. considers airstrikes on Iraq, holds talks with Iran,” includes them, but the piece cites an on-the-record statement by Secretary of State John Kerry in which he calls bombing “one of the options.”)

Maybe instead of carping about the reporting behind the dueling headlines, I should be thanking the Times and the Journal for demystifying the current and former, senior and military officials who provided the anonymous sourcing. After Wednesday’s spectacle, no discerning reader will read anonymously sourced news the same way.

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In case you missed it, the Times stumbled twice in two recent weeks in stories based on anonymous sources, as I wrote on Monday. Thanks to Stuart Millar, deputy editor of the Guardian U.S., whose Wednesday tweet solved my problem of what to write about mid-week. Send story ideas directly to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and sift my Twitter feed for stories of your own. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the situation in Iraq from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington June 13, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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