If it weren’t for anonymous sources, it seems that the media wouldn’t have any sources at all. In the past two weeks the media have promoted a number of weighty stories that rested upon the credibility of people whose names we are not allowed to know. Two of these stories were veritable bombshells that, if true, should rightly land powerful people in prison. It’s too bad both stories were so thinly sourced.
Perhaps the bigger of the two stories, measured at least by the news coverage that it got, was the Washington Post’s scoop that Donald Trump had allegedly shared classified intelligence with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador concerning ISIS terror plots. That report was followed by a barrage of stories about exactly which beans were spilled and whether they were really classified beans. Each volley of articles only muddied the waters more.
The second bombshell involved a new development in the Seth Rich murder investigation. Rich, a 27 year-old DNC staffer, was gunned down last July in a wealthy section of Washington, DC. Shortly thereafter, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange very strongly hinted that Rich was the source of embarrassing internal party emails leaked to his organization—emails that showed that the system was rigged against the insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders among other juicy details. If that were the real motive for his murder it would seem to point accusatory fingers at officials in the Democratic Party.
This relatively cold case got a little warmer last week when Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and former DC homicide detective, made the astonishing claim that there was solid evidence on the victim’s laptop that he had been in contact with Wikileaks before he died. This claim seemed a little weak considering the fact that Wheeler had not himself seen the laptop and was not even sure which law enforcement agency had it in their possession. Still, he insisted that a source at the FBI had told him that the laptop was the key to cracking the case. Within about 24 hours, FOX News was claiming to have an anonymous federal investigator who confirmed the veracity of Wheeler’s claim. FOX News has now officially retracted that story, though exactly why is a mystery. The New York Times clearly implied that FOX News backed off under pressure from the victim’s family, which is a pretty lousy reason to retract a story if you ask me. If it’s not true that’s something else entirely.
The problem with anonymous sources is that they only have as much credibility as the news outlets that vouch for them. When reporters use anonymous sources they are affirming that the mysterious individual has placement, access, and above all credibility. The reporter is asking his readers for their trust and, by running the story, the news outlet is backing him up. In days gone by reporters usually received the trust that they sought because people didn’t see the media as a bunch of partisan hacks. These days, just saying that “a little bird told me” doesn’t cut it because the media has sullied its own reputation.
Given the declining trust that the public places in journalists, you might think that journalists would scale back their use of anonymous sources but the opposite seems to be happening. Though I know of no database that tracks how often anonymous sources are cited in a given year, casual observation tells me that the practice is more common now than when I started paying attention to the news in the 1990s. Journalist Paul Fahri, who covers the media beat at the Washington Post, concurs. Writing in 2013, he said that “According to sources who didn’t insist on anonymity, more and more sources are speaking to the news media on the condition of anonymity for the oddest of reasons.” I would argue that this trend has only increased since 2013 and that it’s become an epidemic since the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. The news cycle is starting to feel like a middle school rumor mill in which catty girls snipe at each other from behind a veil of secrecy. The news is no longer the news—it’s all the Washington gossip fit to print. This has to stop, at least until the Fourth Estate reestablishes its credibility with the American people, which could take a very long time.
Yet the media seem incapable of hearing any criticism of their profession or their employers. This attitude was driven home last week when a panel of reporters appearing on CNN reacted in shock, disbelief, and anger when their guest, former Navy SEAL Carl Higbie, stated that he was not convinced President Trump had given classified intel to Russian guests. “Tell you what, name those sources, then we’ll have something to talk about,” said Higbie. The exchange that followed was absolutely priceless, mostly for the reaction of hostess Kate Bolduan who lost it on national television. She was incensed that someone wouldn’t take a mainstream media-approved anonymous source as gold.
Journalist Kirsten Powers interjected with the classic defense of anonymous sourcing—Watergate. That scandal was broken by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post who received some tips from a mysterious man in a suburban DC parking garage. Until 2005 Woodward referred to his source, whose real name was W. Mark Felt, as Deep Throat.
Unfortunately, Woodward set a very bad precedent. In the years since Watergate, anonymous sourcing has become almost de rigeur. Every anonymous source is now treated like a latter-day Deep Throat. Never mind the fact that Woodward used his secret source mostly as a starting point and that he didn’t expect the entire story to hold together on that single source’s credibility.
If Kirsten Powers wants to use Deep Throat as an example of anonymous sourcing at its best I can surely provide counterexamples of anonymous sourcing gone horribly wrong. Two such examples can be found at The New Republic (TNR), a publication that liberals tend to hold in high regard despite the various journalistic abominations it has run over the years.
In 2007, TNR ran three dispatches from a GI in Iraq whom they referred to as “Scott Thomas” (pseudonym) or the Baghdad Diarist. The Diarist wrote of American soldiers behaving more or less like savages: disrespecting the bodies of dead Iraqi civilians and running over dogs with their Bradley fighting vehicles. Readers were supposed to feel as if they were getting the ground truth instead of Pentagon spin when in fact they were merely having their preconceived notions confirmed. Unfortunately for TNR, the Baghdad Diarist was basically making all of this stuff up. A US Army investigation into this blatant misconduct found it baseless. None of the details of his story stacked up, “Scott Thomas” refused to cooperate with TNR’s own inquiry, and eventually TNR retracted the story.
To make matters worse TNR was by then still on probation for another incident that happened nine years prior, from which they claimed they had learned some lessons. In 1998 TNR got burned by one of its associate editors, Stephen Glass, who turned out to be a compulsive liar. An investigation later determined that 27 of Glass’s 41 TNR pieces contained at least some made up material and a few were entirely confabulated. Glass of course hid behind anonymous sources. His editor, Charles Lane, trusted him and even went to bat for him when Glass’s reporting first began to be called into question. The fact-checking system at TNR didn’t catch Glass’s lies because the fact-checkers believed essentially anything that he wrote in his notes and made no attempt to determine the real identities of anonymous sources.
These two examples illustrate the pitfalls of anonymous sources. The Baghdad Diarist was a real soldier deployed to Iraq but he wasn’t credible. There was no way for TNR readers to assess his credibility because they didn’t know who he was. Believing that his account would never be checked, “Scott Thomas” wrote whatever his imagination could dream up, slimed his brothers-in-arms, and hurt the mission. Stephen Glass’s scandal was even worse because his anonymous sources were entirely fictional, a secret he thought he could keep.
When reporters have leeway to cite anonymous sources there’s really nothing to stop them from pulling these kinds of stunts. They can write anything at all and just attribute it to some guy they met in a parking garage. The guy in the parking garage may or may not exist, may or may not be a crackpot, may or may not have an agenda, may or may not have the access he claims to have. We don’t know.
Journalism as a profession has some well-deserved black eyes and it would behoove reporters to start earning back the public trust. Anonymous sources do the opposite. Too often they’ve been used as covers for lousy and unethical reporting.