Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

ANONYMOUS SOURCES....In the Washington Post today, Mark Feldstein makes the right point about the overuse of anonymous sources by the Washington press corps:

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.

....The problem is that by deliberately omitting the essential explanation of how the source is attempting to manipulate the agenda, the journalist often becomes a virtual accomplice hiding the ongoing but subterranean bureaucratic or ideological conflict at the heart of the story.

Italics mine.

It's worth noting that Feldstein's "unspoken conspiracy" is nothing new. Although my knowledge of journalism prior to the 70s comes strictly from books, my very strong impression is that the cozy press-source relationship he describes was far more prevelant in the middle third of the last century than it is today. In a benign way, it was what kept FDR's wheelchair out of news photographs and JFK's womanizing off the front page; in a less benign way, it was what made Joe McCarthy into a media superstar and allowed the country to slip quietly into the Vietnam War with hardly a peep of warning. Say what you will about the media's current lame-osity quotient, none of these four events would play out today the way they did then.

Blogospheric conventional wisdom to the contrary, the reality is that the press is far more transparent today than it used to be. In decades past, the symbiotic relationship between reporters and anonymous sources was so ingrained in the system that it was barely even acknowledged, and when it was, the acknowledgment was little more than a breezy "sources say" or "we have learned." The fact that sources were spinning was nearly invisible to all but the most astute reader.

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." In a way this is a praiseworthy development, but in reality all it's done is make the news audience hungry for the rest of the curtain to be pulled aside. 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.

Anonymous sources will always be with us. Both politicians and reporters find them too useful to give up. What would make them more palatable, however, is not merely an effort to explain why a particular source has demanded anonymity the excuses are usually so lame as to be more insulting than revealing but an effort to explain why they're saying what they're saying. If a source has a clear stake in the story, let the reader know. After all, there's nearly always a way to do this without revealing who the source is, and any source who refuses to allow even this much identification deserves to be ignored.

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.

UPDATE: A reader provides a different perspective here.

Kevin Drum 2:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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