Press Box

Pampered Anonymice

Why does the Washington Post shield useless sources?

The culture of anonymity nurtured by the caring hands that make up the Washington press corps produces, from time to time, a bumper crop of nourishing and digestible news. The press has worked hard to create an environment where it’s relatively easy for whistle-blowers to come forward safely and expose wrongdoing in government and industry, leak revelatory documents, and offer readers depictions of events that come closer to the truth.

But the acreage devoted to anonymous sourcing has grown so vast in recent years that the press—shameless in its lack of self-discipline—has invited opportunistic weeds, weevils, starlings, carp, and other pests to bloom in that editorial space. It’s gotten so bad that you can barely read a Washington news story without getting an eyeful from an official or semi-official anonymous source who either 1) adds nothing to the story or 2) actually subtracts from it because he’s allowed to spin his side’s case without being held accountable.

In yesterday’s Washington Post (Nov. 2, 2003; Page A9), veteran reporters Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank give the gift of anonymity, for no discernable reason, to two sources in “U.S. Administrator Imposes Flat Tax System on Iraq.”

But before we get to Pincus and Milbank’s anonymice, a couple of minor gripes about the story. Minor Gripe No. 1: You’d think from the headline that Iraq Administrator Paul Bremer had just recently handed down his Iraq flat tax decree. But the Iraq flat tax is not news, the story confesses by the second paragraph, noting that Bremer decreed the 15 percent flat tax for individuals and businesses on Sept. 15 and then discussed it before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Sept. 22. (Indeed, Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran covered Iraq’s new flat tax in the paper’s Sept. 22 edition.)

Minor Gripe No. 2: Without ellipses or brackets, Pincus and Milbank quote Bremer as saying this at the Sept. 22 Senate appearance:

Iraq’s new tax system is admirably straightforward. The highest marginal tax rate on personal and corporate income is 15 percent.

This does not jibe with the transcripts of the hearing by both Federal News Service and Federal Document Clearing House, which have Bremer saying a little more:

Iraq’s new tax system is admirably straightforward. The highest marginal tax rate, as announced by the minister of finance yesterday, on personal and corporate income tax is—get this—15 percent, 1-5 percent. [Excised words emphasized.]

Which leads us to the Main Gripe: Pincus and Milbank’s silly anonymice. As the story cascades down the page, you realize its intended direction: The article’s real context is that the Republicans have succeeded in bringing a lower flat tax to Iraq than their presidential candidates, Phil Gramm and Steve Forbes, ever proposed for the United States. Flat tax proponents Grover Norquist, Amity Shlaes, Bruce Bartlett, and George W. Bush are quoted saying nice things about flat taxes. Pincus and Milbank also explain why the tax was an easier sale overseas—in chaotic places like Russia and the Baltic states where tax codes were pretzeled—and such a hard sell at home (flat is not progressive, and the entrenched interests love the various tax deductions that flat would displace).

So far, so good. Given the controversial nature of flat taxes, you’d expect Pincus and Milbank to find genuine enemies of the flat tax, but instead they award anonymity to a pair of sources who merely tsk-tsk about the policy. First we hear from “a Middle East expert who heard” Iraqi finance minister Kamil Mubdir al-Gailani’s presentation of the new finance program “at a recent international meeting.” (I’m guessing this meeting was the one cited in Chandrasekaran’s Sept. 22 article, which also announced the advent of Iraq’s new flat tax rate.) This pampered anonymouse says:

A piece of social engineering is being done on Iraq, but it has almost no support from other members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

Why in tarnation should the Post dress this “Middle East expert” in a mask? If it’s true that the flat tax has “almost no support” from members of the governing council aside from al-Gailani and Ahmad Chalabi, shouldn’t that be the story? A strong case could be made that the lack of governing council support is the only authentic news in this retread of an article. Is the claim true? Could it be it’s not true? More than one reporter has asked an anonymouse, “Say, can I get that brilliant statement on the record?” and then been told by his rodent source, “Um, let me check to see if it’s true.”

And shouldn’t the Post article explain why they didn’t try to get this source on the record? Does he fear retaliation from the attendees of the “recent international meeting”?

A few paragraphs down, another anonymouse, an economist “familiar” with Russian tax policy, scampers into the story to squeak:

At the previous 40 percent to 50 percent, Russian people were evading. Now at a lower rate, they are paying because the penalties are so heavy.

Who is the Post protecting here with the blessing of anonymity? Is the source going to lose his job because he said Russians evaded their onerous taxes more in the past than in the flat tax present? When did the Post start protecting the right of economists to speak in hushed, off-stage tones about the patently obvious?

The right-winger in me would like to hypothesize that Pincus, who covers national security, and Milbank, who covers the White House, wanted to slag the flat tax and joined forces to do so. But neither of them is a righteous ideologue. Plus there’s no real evidence of such a sinister liberal plot here except that the anonymous sources and the only named liberal, former Clinton economic adviser Gene Sperling, get the most interesting lines. Says Sperling in the story’s kicker, “If Steve Forbes does a bus tour [of Iraq] to promote [the flat tax], I hope they have adequate security.”

The truer verdict, I suspect, is that after all their reporting, Pincus and Milbank didn’t have much of a story to tell about the Iraqi flat tax and flecked it with the droppings of two anonymice to give it the aroma of news. One indication that the story might have been written days or even weeks ago (and left to rot in the Post queue in October) comes at the story’s top where they write that Bremer issued his flat tax “last month.” On Nov. 2, when the story was published, “last month” would be any time in October. Bremer, as Pincus and Milbank write in the second paragraph, promulgated the tax on Sept. 15.

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Addendum, Nov. 4:Economist Bruce Bartlett dropped me an e-mail to note that even though the Post headline and article go on and on about the new Iraqi “flat tax,” the country’s new tax code isn’t flat at all. Iraq’s new policy merely sets the highest marginal tax rate at 15 percent, which leaves room for progressivity in the tax code. (Pincus and Milbank have it both ways in their article, writing that the new tax is flat and that the highest marginal rate is 15 percent.) In e-mail, Bartlett explains, “[O]ne could easily write a tax law with a top statutory rate of 15 percent and achieve any degree of taxation one wants, including effective rates well above 15 percent. It all depends on how you define ‘income.’ ” Elsewhere in the piece, Pincus and Milbank quote a “Middle East expert” who says, “A piece of social engineering is being done on Iraq, but it has almost no support from other members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.” Almost no support? According to a Sept. 22 Wall Street Journal editorial, the Iraqi Governing Council approved the new economic policies, which include the 15 percent tax rate.Lastly, flat taxes aren’t as rare as Pincus and Milbank make them out to be. In addition to Russia, Ukraine and Slovakia have adopted a flat tax, and Poland and Romania are considering a flat tax as well.******Send your e-mail—on the record—to pressbox@hotmail.com.