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: