A convention in modern journalism dictates that when reporters and editors grant news sources anonymity, the story should explain why the person couldn’t be named.
Almost everybody in the business believes that true whistleblowers—who put their lives or careers in peril by informing reporters of serious wrongdoing—deserve the protection of anonymity. Likewise, most reporters believe it’s relevant for the reader to know if ulterior motives are behind an anonymous source’s comments.
But in the real world, especially at the bigger dailies, anonymous source status is easily obtained. For example, anonymice get their say in at least four Washington Post stories today (March 17). In a murder story and a business piece, the reporters basically imply that they extended anonymity because they believed the source was providing important information to them but the source didn’t want his boss or associates to know about the blabbing. In a sports piece and a political piece, the Post reporters don’t provide a reason for their anonymous sourcing—this despite the Post policy that states “Named sources are vastly to be preferred to unnamed sources” and “granting anonymity to a source should not be done casually or automatically.”
Meanwhile, over at today’s New York Times, reporter Todd S. Purdum expands the definition of who qualifies as an anonymous source to include the selfless in a “news analysis” piece about World Bank president nominee Paul D. Wolfowitz (“Wolfowitz Nod Follows Spread of Conservative Philosophy“).
One of Mr. Wolfowitz’s associates, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to steal the spotlight, said he expected Mr. Wolfowitz would continue the anticorruption efforts of the departing president, James D. Wolfensohn, and demand fresh accountability from governments that receive aid. “Corruption was high on Wolfensohn’s agenda, and Wolfowitz has been very, very impressed by that,” the associate said. “One of his first passions was development, and when he was ambassador to Indonesia in the Reagan years, he was out there with the chicken farmers, and he’s kind of made for this job in some ways.” [Emphasis added.]
As far as I’m concerned, “not wanting to steal the spotlight” ranks right up there with “not wanting to muss one’s hair” as a valid reason to give a source anonymity. Are Wolfowitz’s anticorruption views and his love of Indonesian chicken farmers so hidden from public view that the Times must rely on an anonymous source to point them out? And if Purdum is going to document a Wolfowitz tongue-bath, shouldn’t he get it on the record?
Although I’ve made a playpen out of Purdum’s story, I don’t think he’s a hack. He’s a fine reporter whose piece demonstrates that even accomplished journalists can be seduced by smooth-talking sources from time to time.
In not so many words, I asked Purdum what caused him to lose his mind, and he responded via e-mail in this gentlemanly fashion:
When somebody gets a new job in Washington, among the biggest questions is what he or she will do. Often the people who are willing to say the most about this are the anonymice who work for them. And, yes, the code of the road forbids them from “stealing the spotlight.” This particular Wolfowitz associate sought to give me some idea of what Wolfowitz WOULD do, that is, among other things, continue Wolfensohn’s anti-corruption campaign at the World Bank. I do think that was valuable, or at least specific and concrete information. Could one make the point that I need not have put it inside quotation marks? Absolutely, and in hindsight, perhaps I wish I’d just paraphrased it, not used quotes. Or, if it’s attributed to an anonymous “associate” is that just as bad? I have to acknowledge, in the clarity of hindsight, that the second part of the quote, about Wolfowitz’s being made for the job, is the kind of comment that has more credibility when a concrete name is attached to it. What can I say? We’re all still learning. But I can assure you, we are thinking about these things, and questions now routinely get raised that were never before considered. So I guess progress comes step by step.
Purdum’s note inadvertently adds information about Mr. Selfless’ identity beyond what’s in the story. It turns out that the spotlight-phobic “associate” is a Wolfowitz employee. If saying nice things about your boss on the record steals the spotlight, then I’m guilty of the offense three times a week.
Wolfowitz Literary Bonus: On Sept. 22, 2002, future New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller profiled the farmer lover in the Times Magazine. Keller writes:
When Iraq swooped into Kuwait in 1990, Wolfowitz was Cheney’s under-secretary for policy. He was the strongest advocate for dispatching warships early as a sign of American resolve, and his was a persistent voice for putting American troops on the ground. After Iraq was driven out of Kuwait, Wolfowitz argued unsuccessfully that America should support the Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south in their attempts to finish off Saddam.There is an entertaining echo of his frustration in Ravelstein, Saul Bellow’s roman a clef about Wolfowitz’s college guru, Allan Bloom. In the novel, Wolfowitz has a walk-on part as a former student who has made it big in Washington and periodically delights his old tutor by phoning in tidbits of inside dope. Professor Bloom/Ravelstein returns from one such phone call during the gulf war to inform his friends: “Colin Powell and Baker have advised the president not to send the troops all the way to Baghdad. Bush will announce it tomorrow. They’re afraid of a few casualties.” Neither Wolfowitz nor anyone else in the administration was calling for sending American troops to Baghdad, since that far exceeded their mandate from Congress and the United Nations to liberate Kuwait. But Wolfowitz was dismayed by the decision to quickly extricate American troops and let the situation in Iraq run its course.
A Call for Warm Bodies: Help fill the Brookings Institution’s Falk Auditorium on March 22 from 10 a.m. to noon as the think tank that Richard Nixon plotted to bomb convenes a panel to explore “The Impact of the New Media: A Live, Inter@ctive Discussion & Webcast.” (I’m not kidding about that “@”.) Panelists include Jodie T. Allen, Ana Marie Cox, Ellen Ratner, Jack Shafer, and Andrew Sullivan. Moderator, E.J. Dionne Jr. Bloggers Daniel Drezner (danieldrezner.com), Ed Morrissey ( captainsquartersblog.com), and Josh Trevino ( redstate.org) will blog in real-time. Registration is free. Can’t make it to the show? E-mail your questions for the panel to Brookings. Thanks to reader Alex Barker for calling the Purdum piece to my attention. Send e-mail tips to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)