Opinion

Jack Shafer

If you must quote anonymous sources, make sure they say something!

Jack Shafer
Aug 14, 2014 21:11 UTC

A decade ago, both the Washington Post and the New York Times conceded that they had lost control of the use of anonymous sources in their pages and each set up new guidelines to police the practice.

Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. promised in a 2004 piece that his paper would “explain to readers why a source was not being named” inside stories, and the Times similarly resolved to tame the anonymous monster.

Both efforts ran out of steam before they even reached pressure, as I and Erik Wemple (then at Washington City Paper) gloated. Ever since, Post ombudsmen (Deborah Howell and Andrew Alexander) and Times public editors (Daniel Okrent, Clark Hoyt and Byron Calame) have rebuked their respective papers for the unchecked use of anonymous sources, but to little avail. The Post no longer employs an ombudsman to wrangle the anonymice scurrying through coverage. The Times‘ current press cop, Margaret Sullivan, still walks the beat with her AnonyWatch feature, which highlights “the more regrettable examples of anonymous quotations in the Times.” She swings a mean stick, but nobody packs sufficient wood to regulate anonymous sources, as a review of the past week’s coverage in the Times and Post indicates.

The Times has cited anonymous sources in at least 25 stories in the past seven days. Behind the scenes, labored negotiations may be governing who gets to speak anonymously in the paper, but from the outside it looks like the Times will give you a mask if you simply ask. In an Aug 5 story about the multi-million dollar deals the stars of The Big Bang Theory just won, the Times attributes its information about the deals to “people with knowledge of the outcome, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations were private.”

Are not most financial negotiations private, or have I missed public ones conducted at the Hollywood Bowl between stars and producers? By applying such low standards to sourcing, the Times essentially places a placard in its window announcing its availability to any source who wants to anonymously spill details about negotiations. I’m not such a sourcing absolutist that I rule out all anonymity. But if the Times is going to be pliant, at least it can be honest about its pliancy, rephrasing its justification to say, “the sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Times always rolls over for them in stories like these.”

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

Jack Shafer
Jun 19, 2014 13:38 UTC

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.

The source may be anonymous, but the shame is all yours

Jack Shafer
Jun 16, 2014 22:49 UTC

 Bob Woodward, former Washington Post reporter, discusses about Watergate Hotel burglary and stories for the Post at Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda

Twice over the past two weeks, New York Times reporters got taken for long rides by anonymous sources who ultimately dropped them off at the corner of Mortified and Peeved.

The first embarrassing trip for the Times came on May 31, as the paper alleged in a Page One story that a federal insider trading investigation was “examining” golfer Phil Mickelson’s “well-timed trades” in Clorox stock, according to “people briefed on the investigation.” On June 11, the Times rowed the story back — citing anonymous sources again, namely “four people briefed on the matter” — calling the original story about Mickelson’s role “overstated.” Mickelson did not, the paper reported, trade shares of Clorox.

Heads bowed, the new Times article explained the error: “The overstated scope of the investigation came from information provided to the Times by other people briefed on the matter who have since acknowledged making a mistake.”

Who gets to be anonymous?

Jack Shafer
Nov 9, 2011 23:32 UTC

Yesterday, The Daily was first to name Karen Kraushaar as one of the two women who worked with Herman Cain at the National Restaurant Association and accused him of sexual harassment. As the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride wrote, Business Insider and the Daily Caller repeated the Daily‘s report that Kraushaar had made the sexual harassment claim, and NPR got her to confirm her identity as “Woman A.” Shortly thereafter, Kraushaar was talking to the New York Times, and the whole world knew who she was.

For what good reason was Kraushaar’s identity concealed in the first place?

Politico, which broke the sexual harassment claims story on Oct. 31, didn’t really explain why it did not name the accusers in its scoop, reporting only that it had “confirmed the identities of the two female restaurant association employees who complained about Cain but, for privacy concerns, is not publishing their names.”

When anonymice attack

Jack Shafer
Oct 19, 2011 00:02 UTC

Washington’s anonymous sources are disagreeing with one another today.

In the lead story in today’s New York Times (“U.S. Debated Cyberwarfare in Attack Plan on Libya”), the anonymous sources tell reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker that the issue of whether or not to attack Libya with cyberweapons was “intensely debated” by the Obama administration last March.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s catch-up story by Ellen Nakashima that runs on A5 in today’s print edition, disputes an important element of the Times revelation. Relying on its own anonymice, the Post piece confirms that a cyberwarfare debate took place but asserts unequivocally that the debate “did not reach the White House” according to Pentagon officials. [Emphasis added.]

Obviously, either the Times or the Post owes its readers a correction because the administration cannot have “intensely debated” cyberwar against the Libyan military at the same time that it did not. Such  a fundamental contradiction screams out for a follow-up story by both papers, but will we see them?

Bloggy Monday: McGinniss’s anonymous sources; Netflix switcheroo; ask an expert; FOIA turnaround.

Jack Shafer
Oct 10, 2011 21:08 UTC

Alaskan anonymice. Joe McGinniss got knocked by reviewers—me included—for relying so heavily on anonymous sources for his new book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin. Today he strikes back at his critics in the opinion pages of USA Today, citing Bob Woodward, New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, and Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone on why journalists must get anonymice to squeak about the powerful if they’re going to get the story.

In mounting his defense, McGinniss lunges for the “speaking truth to power” cliché and hugs it as if he’s drowning and it’s the only safety buoy bobbing in sight. In the case of McGinniss’s coverage of Palin, who resigned from the office of governor in July 2009, the more appropriate catch phrase would be “speaking truth to those out of power.” Since 2009, Palin has held little power outside of her TV appearances, her reality TV show, her two best-selling books, her sporadic bus tours, and a threat to run for president. By such a wobbly yardstick, even Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich can almost be considered “powerful.”

McGinniss brags in the op-ed that he interviewed about 200 people in Alaska and quoted more than 60 in the book. As I read The Rogue, I kept track of the number of anonymous sources that he cited and came up with more than 50. It seems to me that a book that isn’t about national security or whose information isn’t cocooned beneath a corporate veil, such as The Rogue, should have had a better ratio than 60 named sources to 50 unnamed ones. McGinniss builds the case in his book and his op-ed that Sarah and Todd Palin deal vindictively with people who cross them, although to the best of my knowledge none of their victims have been fished out of Cook Inlet.

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