Press Box

Exterminate All the Anonymice

Nobody can blame reporters for concealing the identity of a source who might suffer for telling the biting truth. But what to make of journalists who extend anonymity to sources who gum the obvious? Or the mundane?

Today’s examples come from the Washington Post, Newsweek, and the New York Times. In “Giuliani Stays Undecided, Heightening GOP Anxieties” (May 16), Post reporters John F. Harris and Michael Powell ponder who will become the GOP’s nominee if Rudolph Giuliani drops out of the Senate race. One would expect these reporters to turn to the GOP camp for the inside skinny on the potential candidates, and that the reporters would have to pay for the access by blind sourcing.

Instead, as foreshadowed by the subhead of their piece–“Clinton Strategists Consider Scenarios, Many Favorable”–Harris and Powell gather a consensus from Republicans and Democrats that Rep. Rick Lazio will be the likely substitute, and then grant anonymity to the Democrats who work for Team Hillary and publish their speculations!

“[Lazio is] a lieutenant in the Gingrich army, with a series of votes that will be hung around his neck,” said one Clinton adviser.

Lazio also would start with little money and little profile. “They’re sending in a pitch hitter,” said one Democratic source close to Clinton’s campaign.

Other Clinton aides were a shade more guarded. Lazio, they said, might do well among suburban Catholics, a major voting bloc in New York. He also might be able to unite his party more than the divisive Giuliani could and excite more enthusiasm from rank-and-file Republicans. …

Mostly, however, either Lazio or some other candidate would test what many analysts once regarded as the central reality of New York this year: Both Giuliani and Clinton are so controversial that neither would have little chance except in a race against the other. “The reality is we don’t know,” said one Clinton adviser. “This is a total shuffle of the deck.”

Why do these “Clinton advisers” deserve anonymity? Are they going to lose their jobs for criticizing and assessing their candidate’s potential opponents?

Newsweek’s May 22 coverage of the Sierra Leone free-for-all, “Fury and Fear,” awards anonymity to those other Clinton advisers, the ones who work out of the White House. Tom Masland and Jeffrey Batholet write:

President Clinton agonizes over his administration’s failure to prevent horrors in Africa. “There is nothing in his presidency that upsets him more than Rwanda,” says an associate. Clinton promised [U.N. Secretary General Kofi] Annan that Washington was ready to join the others in helping Sierra Leone. “He’s very, very seriously determined not to turn his back on this,” said one White House official. What that means is not clear.

That the memory of Rwanda upsets Clinton is not news, so it makes no sense to “protect” any presidential source alleging it. And if it’s “not clear” what the White House official means when he says the president is “very, very seriously determined not to turn his back on this,” why don’t the Newsweek reporters ask the source to clarify? And kick him in the pants if he continues to obfuscate.

The last example of indefensible blind sourcing is offered by Slate reader Josh Pollack–Jane Perlez’s piece in the May 12 New York Times, “China Likely to Modernize Nuclear Arms, U.S. Believes.”

“Whether or not we proceed with national missile defense, China’s nuclear forces would expand in a way that would make this system less threatening to China,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on arms control at the State Department. …

“We haven’t had the kind of deep national security or international security dialogue with China that we would like to have for the last couple of years because of the continuing fallout from the embassy bombing,” the official said, referring to the American strike against the Chinese embassy in Belgrade last May during the air war over Kosovo.

Pollock calls these comments “indistinguishable” from the on-the-record sentiments expressed by the Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs John Holum. Indeed, compare the above comments to Holum’s remarks on the Jan. 12, 2000, edition of National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation.

The Chinese–the strategic forces have been engaged in modernization for some time now. We’ve been expecting a further expansion of their forces. This system that we’re talking about, the defensive system, won’t be in place–the limited first phase won’t be in place until 2005. Meantime, the modernization of China’s forces is likely to continue. So I don’t think this treaty–this system would be effective against the kinds of forces we project that China will likely have over a period of time. This defense, I want to emphasize again, is not aimed against China. We need to be talking about this system with China. China hasn’t been willing to engage because they’re still not satisfied with our responses on the Yugoslavian embassy bombing. But we hope we can engage in those kinds of discussions.

If the blind source is Holum, why not get him on the record as long as he’s peddling the same old administration hoo-hah. And if it isn’t Holum, Perlez should bust him for plagiarism.

Spotted an anonymouse in the press that deserves exterminating? Drop me a line at

(Arrive late to the Press Box war on anonymous sourcing? See this previous column about how the Post blind-sided Madeleine K. Albrightand this declaration of war on blind quotes.)