Washington and Anonymous Sources

Mark Feldstein in the New York Times has an article on the Washington Press Corp's affinity for anonymous sources.

Despite the widespread fixation on this political scandal, there is also an important journalistic one: the conflict of interest that reporters routinely have with high-level sources who leak sensitive information. It is the dirty little secret of the Washington press corps, a kind of unspoken conspiracy in which reporters conceal not only their sources' identities but more importantly the underlying motives for the leaks. This Faustian pact can be a disservice to the public, which learns only a part of the larger truth, a version that may be accurate as far as it goes but is by definition deficient.

Kevin Drum makes some good points about it, and has a recommendation:

Today sources are nowhere near so invisible. They have names: "senior administration official," "a source close to the president," "a lawyer who has been briefed on the case." ....Given attributions like these, even non-astute readers figure out pretty quickly that these are real people who probably have a real axe to grind, and once they know that much they want to know what axe they have to grind as well.

So sign me up for what I'm going to call the Feldstein Plan: accept the reality of anonymous sourcing in political journalism, but demand that attributions at least make it clear which side sources are on. It's only with that information in hand that readers can judge for themselves whether an anonymous source is worth the newsprint he's printed on.

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    Re: Washington and Anonymous Sources (none / 0) (#1)
    by scarshapedstar on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:35 PM EST
    Kevin's got it all wrong; clearly, freedom of the press was intended to give the government free license to retaliate against whistleblowers, not vice versa.

    Re: Washington and Anonymous Sources (none / 0) (#2)
    by aahpat on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:35 PM EST
    Anonymous sources should only be used to protect and enhance the public trust. The problem is that the shield doctrine today has no ethical standard. A doctrine without an ethical standard is simply doctrinaire. It is not protecting and defending democracy by securing the need of the electorate to be informed when the shield doctrine is used to hide the identity of officials who may have violated the public trust. This post by me at LeftIndependent: Rove's treason http://leftindependent.blogspot.com/2005/07/roves-treason.html discusses further the media ethical issues relating to the Rove/Plame leak. And it includes a link to a very insightful letter in Editor and Publisher by a journalism professor friend of Karl Rove's. The Plame case though is not the exception to the rule. It is the willful subversion of the shield doctrine by Rove for the Bush administration. It is an intentional violation of the trust implicit in any agreement based on a rule or doctrine. And here is my letter to Time on July 3 about my perspective of their responsibility in the Rove/Plame leak. Letter to Time magazine http://leftindependent.blogspot.com/2005/07/letter-to-time-magazine.html "Time was wrong only in not publishing the leakers name two years ago before the grand jury convened. Time would not be facing any of the legal problems today had the story been fully reported when it was going on in July 2003."

    Re: Washington and Anonymous Sources (none / 0) (#3)
    by ppjakajim on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:01:35 PM EST
    aahpat writes:
    The problem is that the shield doctrine today has no ethical standard. A doctrine without an ethical standard is simply doctrinaire.
    Well said. But.... Can you tell me that you belive that the use of B&W was wrong in Watergate. Especially since the source could have gone public and received an enormous amount of attention by the media. He was not some clerk working in the backroom who needed help in outing his criminal boss.