The Washington Post recodified the rules of engagement for its reporters last month, spelling out for newsroom employees the newspaper’s policy on the use of confidential sources. The memo, promptly leaked to and posted by Romenesko, was supplemented yesterday (March 7, 2004) by a piece addressed to Post readers by Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. titled “The Guidelines We Use To Report the News.”
The principles laid down in Downie’s piece—which restates the Post’s preference that reporters put sources “on the record” whenever possible, encourages his reporters to object to “background briefings,” and directs editors and reporters to give readers as much information about confidential sources as they can—should be lauded by everybody who reads newspapers and observed by everybody who works for them. As Downie writes, the Post’s goal is to “publish stories that are accurate and complete” in this era of “Internet-borne rumors, talk-show speculation and sophisticated spinning by newsmakers who want to influence how the news is reported while hiding their responsibility for doing so.” In other words, Downie wants to smush a bunch of anonymice!
Yet his new diktat arrives at a peculiar time for Post reporters covering the leak-staunching Bush administration. As Ken Auletta reported in the Jan. 19, 2004, New Yorker, the current White House is the most secretive and disciplined of any in memory. President Bush holds fewer press conferences than the average president. When he does meet the press, he works hard to say nothing; his staff tends not to return reporters’ phone calls, and if they do, they don’t stray from the White House’s official script. Mark Halperin of ABC News tells Auletta that Bush advisers regard the press as a “special interest, rather than as guardians of the public interest,” a view that essentially gives them permission to “manipulate us forever and set the press schedule, access, and agenda that he wants.”
Downie’s reformulated policy would seem to spell disaster for his White House reporters, who hustle madly on this competitive beat to expose the inner workings of government. If Downie reduces the Post’s reliance on background briefings and confidential sources, the White House will be all too happy to retail its confidential wares, such as they are, to other newspapers and news outlets. One obvious venue would be the Post’s primary competitor, the New York Times. But the Times revised its sourcing rules last month (also posted on Romenesko) in a document that makes many of the same noises as the Post’s about when, where, and how to use confidential sources. On the assumption that the Post and Times hold tough against the manipulative purveyors of confidential tidbits, surely the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, or the networks will dive for whatever swill the confidential sources are serving. Realistically, how long would the Post and the Times hold out?
If Auletta is right about the White House’s news-throttling ways, what would be lost if the Post and the Times turned their backs on its worthless background briefings and stopped barking like terriers for table scraps from administration officials? Not to disparage the fine work of Post and Times reporters, but how great a tragedy would it be if they gave the official agenda a bye and stopped reporting the incremental changes in White House policy that pass for news? For one thing, it would free up staff to cultivate sources outside the corridors of power. There’s plenty of news to be gotten further down the pecking order, as Michael Massing explains in his recent New York Review of Books feature “Now They Tell Us.” Massing found that the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, which relied on “blue collar” sources to report the prewar WMD threat rather than high-level ones, captured a more accurate picture of Iraq’s capabilities than did the New York Times’ Judith Miller, who had numerous high sources feeding her.
Perhaps the Wall Street Journal, an extremely accurate newspaper, points the way out of this morass. The Journal relies on confidential sources, of course, but it also allows its reporters more latitude in asserting what they know to be true. The paper encourages reporters to incorporate analysis into their reporting rather than compose a stenographic procession of facts, quotations, and official denials, allowing it in many cases to get closer to the truth than its rivals. (Unexpected added benefit: It’s my experience that because the Journal spends less time bargaining with sources about attribution, they’re generally less compromised than your average government beat reporter.) To be sure, the Journal doesn’t carry the Post’s burden of having to be the newspaper of White House record, which makes it easy for it to ignore the minutia of presidential news. But the Journal’s coverage of big business, which can be every bit as closed-mouthed and controlling as any government agency, exhibits the strength of the paper’s methodology.
Downie isn’t the sort of editor to make such proclamations and then only pay lip service to them. Although his article makes exceptions for whistle-blowers—such as the confidential sources who talked to the Post about lead contamination in Washington, D.C., water and the treatment of animals at the National Zoo—I have to believe that he’s serious about forcing more official sources onto the record. With Downie’s piece in mind, let’s read the Post with a magnifying glass in the coming weeks and see how good he is at enforcing his new standards.
The Downie Watch starts here: If you catch the Post bending over for confidential sources, send mail and the story URL to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)