Press pays a price for anonymous sources

Sunday, May 22, 2005

As the bearers of bad news, journalists from time to time feel the need to remind their audiences not to shoot the messenger. More and more, however, the press is saving everyone else the trouble and shooting itself in the foot.

The latest news organization (as of this writing) to suffer a self-inflicted wound is Newsweek. White House and Pentagon officials, press critics, bloggers and others are roundly pillorying the news magazine over an item in its May 9 issue alleging that U.S. interrogators of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Quran, Islam’s holy book.

The desecration allegation consisted of seven words in a 208-word article. Nevertheless, many claimed that the item set off violent protests in Afghanistan and Pakistan and inflamed anti-American passions throughout the Muslim world. The magazine at first apologized for the article and then retracted it, explaining that the single anonymous source for the allegation had become uncertain about its accuracy.

The magazine’s detractors directed much of their vitriol at reliance on an anonymous source as the basis for such an incendiary item. White House spokesman Scott McClellan, in particular, set about publicly instructing Newsweek editors on the finer points of good journalism and what they needed to do to repair the damage.

Three points received short shrift in the official criticism: (1) Similar reports of disrespect to the Quran and Muslim detainees’ faith had appeared in newspapers here and abroad for two years. (2) Pentagon officials who reviewed the article before publication voiced no objection to the desecration allegation. (3) Two high military officials said the published article was not the real cause of the violence in Afghanistan.

There is a whiff of hypocrisy and opportunism on the part of government officials, especially, who rail against anonymous sources. It is, after all, government officials who insist on background briefings and anonymity when floating a proposal, promoting an agenda or punishing an enemy. They see no wrong in the “authorized leaks” they make but view as treasonous the “unauthorized leaks” someone else makes.

Even so, the use of confidential sources is at the heart of some of the American press’s most vexing problems today. And while criticism, official and unofficial, about the use of anonymous sources can be painful, the true agony for the press lies in the increasing prospect of prison or fines for journalists and expensive court battles for their bosses.

Not since the Watergate era have so many journalists and news organizations been targeted by government prosecutors and private attorneys seeking to force them to reveal their confidential sources. According to a running account maintained by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 32 journalists and news organizations currently are caught up in seven different criminal and civil court cases.

With so much pain involved, why does the press even use confidential sources? Critics say that the practice allows sources with an agenda to take potshots without accountability, that reporters use such sources too often and too casually, and that all of this destroys public trust in the press.

Many journalists feel they have no choice, however. Government and corporate newsmakers regularly insist on anonymity for access. Federal officials, in particular, have become efficient at restricting access to information and disciplined at managing the message. To penetrate these barriers and get the whole story, not just the official story, journalists must promise confidentiality and be prepared to go to jail to protect it.

There are some hopeful signs that both sides can find a way around this seeming impasse.

Several major newspapers have improved their policies on the use of confidential sources. Papers large and small appear to be relying less on anonymous sources. Joe Hagan recently reported in The Wall Street Journal that the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s two-year study of 16 newspapers found that articles citing anonymous sources dropped from 23% in 2003 to 7% in 2004. And USA TODAY Editor Ken Paulson told Editor & Publisher that his newspaper had reduced the use of such sources by 75% in the year since tighter controls were introduced.

Washington bureau chiefs have met with the White House’s McClellan in an effort to get more government officials to shed the cloak of anonymity. The president’s spokesman says he is working on it.

Republican and Democratic members of Congress have introduced federal shield-law proposals to provide some protection for journalists and their confidential sources.

But the practice will never go away entirely.

Government and private officials will continue to speak off the record to avoid accountability. Whistleblowers will continue to speak in secret to avoid punishment. Journalists will continue to use them to avoid being scooped.

And the public will continue to need the information provided by anonymous sources because invariably they are the ones with vital information about corruption, abuse or mistakes in high places.

This system actually works fairly well when practiced with restraint and responsibility. But when anonymous sources are self-serving or wrong, there is a painful price to pay. Just ask the folks at Newsweek.

In the meantime, for some government officials regularly stung by negative press, shooting the messengers may not be an option. But making their lives miserable whenever possible is a fairly satisfying second choice.

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