Perhaps New York Times reporters David E. Sanger and Steven R. Weisman didn’t get the interoffice memoTimes Assistant Managing Editor Allan M. Siegal e-mailed last week. Siegal’s memo announces the formation of an in-house committee charged with finding ways to increase the newspaper’s credibility. “We’d like to believe we have reduced our dependence on anonymous sources,” Siegal writes in his memo and asks the newsroom if more blind sources can be squeezed out of the paper.
Today (Nov. 17), the two reporters reverse Siegal’s progress by packing at least 22 anonymice into their 1,400-word, Page One story, “Cabinet Choices Seen as Move for More Harmony and Control.” This works out to one anonymous or vaguely attributed thought, sentiment, feeling, or a quotation every 63.6 words (as many words contained in this paragraph!). The scampering anonymice appear in this order:
—”current and former administration officials”
—”One senior official”
—”A close associate of Mr. Powell”
—”friends [of Condoleezza Rice]”
—”a national security official who just left the administration”
—”people who know [the president’s] mind”
—”one official who no longer works in the White House but deals with it often”
—”one administration official”
—”officials who have heard accounts of the case Mr. Bush made to Ms. Rice”
—”a former official who is close to Ms. Rice and sat in on many of the White House situation room meeting where policy conflicts arose”
—”an envoy who attended one of the [post-election] meetings”
—”associates [of Ms. Rice]”
—”Ms. Rice’s associates”
—”State Department officials”
Sanger and Weisman spoil their anonymous streak by quoting two officials by name toward the end of the story: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, currently on an Ecuador field trip, and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, speaking to CNN. For shame!
In his June column about anonymice, Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent asks why reporters quote anonymous sources at all. “Do their words take on more credibility because they’re flanked with quotation marks?” he writes. Okrent recommends that reporters abandon blind quotes and such hollow attributions as “officials,” “other officials,” “some officials,” and “State Department officials” and instead concentrate on writing that which they know is true. Remove the safety net of rampant anonymous sourcing and make reporters responsible for the accuracy of the sentences they write, Okrent writes. I’d second Okrent if I hadn’t made the suggestion first.
If Siegal and the Times fail in their quest to reduce anonymous sources, perhaps they could introduce a compromise step proposed by Slate reader John Hooper in an e-mail to me. He suggests:
If we can’t get the NYT and others to stop using unnamed sources, then make it so that they stand out in the story. … Institute a new policy for proper journalism to make any unnamed reference boldface or put a happy face after it or something.
Over to you, 43rd Street. Which do you prefer, bold- or happy face?