Jack Shafer

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.

It doesn’t bother me that McGinniss relied heavily on anonymous sources for reporting his book but it does bug me that he gave them such voice and prominence in the telling of his story. Just because an anonymous source says something doesn’t make it true; just ask Judith Miller. In many cases, anonymous sources have less of an incentive to tell the truth than someone speaking on the record because they know nobody is going to find them out. Also, on-the-record quotations are easier to verify than anonymous ones. McGinniss knows this. Must I go on?

As for McGinniss’s USA Today kicker—”And let’s remember, without Deep Throat, there wouldn’t have been any Watergate hearings, and Richard Nixon would never have resigned”—this is absolutely wrong. Deep Throat wasn’t the essential source that broke the Watergate story, as W. Joseph Campbell (and others) have reported. McGinniss could pick up a copy of Campbell’s 2010 book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism or click through to this piece on Campbell’s blog. As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein write in All the President‘s Men, Woodward’s discussions with Deep Throat were “only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere, and to add some perspective.”

How to cover a demonstration. Or not.

Jack Shafer
Oct 5, 2011 21:35 UTC

In an earlier incarnation as the editor of a weekly newspaper, I did everything in my power to prevent my reporters from covering demonstrations like the Occupy Wall Street protest now clotting the news.

It’s not that I opposed the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. It’s just that my newspaper was published in Washington, D.C., where the list of scheduled demonstrations, picket lines, and budding riots would scroll off your page if you loaded it in your browser.

The agony of familiarity that deterred me from allowing my people to cover the Free Tibet protesters at the Chinese embassy or the abortion rights rally on the Mall or the Justice for Janitors drum-bangers outside a downtown office building didn’t sit well with my staff. In their eyes, my blanket disqualification made as much sense as banning coverage of new films, books, and records in the review sections,  or prohibiting stories about political speeches. The book publisher—like the political demonstrator—wants publicity for his message. Why, my staff asked, should you let the publishers in every week and exclude the demonstrators?