The epidemic of anonymice infesting American journalism has turned me into a sadistic rat-catcher, ready to flatten the skull of every anonymous source that leaps off the page. Earlier this week, I staved in the heads of the quote-boys (“senior administration officials,” in journalese) who accompanied President Bush on his European tour and the reporters who so generously cited them.
Unchecked, anonymous sourcing allows officials to move government spin into the public domain without any personal accountability. In the case of Bush’s European tour, the unnamed sources who spoke to reporters in press briefings added little real news about the president’s daily huddles with foreign leaders. Their comments, quoted in the nation’s top dailies, appear to have been designed solely to portray the president in the most flattering light. Propaganda, if you will, lightly contested if at all.
But as much as I disdain anonymice, I acknowledge that unnamed sources can be used judiciously. One of my favorite reporters, Dana Priest of the Washington Post, tapped an indeterminate number of the wee beasties this week to produce her excellent story about the handling of detainees by the CIA in Afghanistan (“ CIA Avoids Scrutiny of Detainee Treatment,” March 3).
I write “indeterminate,” because she carefully camouflages the number of independent sources talking to her with vague identifiers, such as “four U.S. government officials aware of the case,” “U.S. officials,” “other U.S. officials,” “former and current CIA officials,” “U.S. government officials,” “one government official,” and “officials.” In fact, it’s fair to say that there are no named sources of any consequence in the piece.
All we know about the identities of Priest’s primary anonymous sources is that they work for the government and “are not authorized to talk about the matter.” They appear to be whistle-blowers calling attention to governmental wrongdoing, and, though speaking anonymously, have little in common with the officials who fill the sails of the press corps with their wind.
Priest’s report reveals the not-so-accidental death of an Afghan detainee and documents how the CIA has concealed from the public its Afghanistan prison operations and its abuse of prisoners. Her sources may have ulterior motives—damaging their bureaucratic rivals, for instance, rather than serving justice or informing the public. But if Priest and the Post are being used, which I doubt, they’re getting the better of the bargain.
What separates Priest’s piece from the run-of-the-mill anonymously sourced stories is its relentless specificity. Dates. Locations. The circumstances surrounding the suspicious death. The role played by a “newly minted” CIA case officer in charge of the secret prison (the “Salt Pit”). The assertion that the CIA paid for the maintenance of the facility. The fact that the CIA inspector general is investigating the case.
This level of detail doesn’t automatically make her story “true,” but it does make her story falsifiable, by which I mean possible to disprove. (The hacks reporting from background briefings rarely write anything substantial enough to be proved wrong.) In making her story falsifiable, Priest challenges naysayers to knock it down. Indeed, in the middle of the piece, she gives the CIA that opportunity, and an agency spokesman—who gives his comments on the condition of anonymity!—declines to refute her findings or comment on any case under investigation.
The CIA’s null response—its reluctance to contest either the statements made by Priest’s sources or the information she’s collected—stands as a sort of confirmation of her account. It’s a neat trick: Priest reaches the true verdict—or something very close to it—without presenting the sworn, on-the-record testimony that is the brick and mortar of conventional journalism.
Disclosure: Slate owns the Washington Post Co., which owns the Washington Post, where Priest works. I mean, the Washington Post Co. owns Slate, but we’re working on that. I encourage readers to disclose their potential conflicts of interest. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)