The media is continuously violating its own anonymity policies re: Iran

The nation's media outlets claimed to learn important lessons from their pre-Iraq-war reporting failures, but they are repeating the same mistakes concerning Iran.

Published February 15, 2007 2:04PM (EST)

One of the supposed realizations the media had in the wake of their pre-Iraq-war malfeasance was that they were relying excessively on anonymous government sources for their "reporting" and, specifically, were granting anonymity to government sources in circumstances where there was no justification for doing so. More than anything else, that shoddy journalistic practice is what enabled the Bush administration to convert our media outlets into virtual government information agencies which did more to disseminate, and validate, the President's pre-Iraq-war claims than anything the administration could have accomplished on its own.

As a result, in 2004, both The New York Times and The Washington Post issued comprehensive policies detailing when and how anonymous sources can be used. The Times policy is here, and the Post policy is here. As the Bush administration seeks to convert Iran into an American Enemy against whom war is required, not only the Times and the Post -- but also virtually every media outlet -- have blithely returned to their old ways. They are now flagrantly violating their own "principles" regarding anonymity literally on an almost daily basis, as one "report" after the next does nothing but pass along official Bush talking points under the guise of "leaks" from vaguely defined anonymous Bush officials.

There are two serious and obvious dangers generated by reports which rely upon anonymous government sources -- (1) it allows the government to disseminate false and misleading claims without any accountability, and more importantly, (2) it elevates rank government propaganda to the level of "investigative reporting" by implicitly bestowing it with the appearance of journalistic approval. From Watergate forward, readers instinctively view information "leaked" by anonymous sources as more credible than formal government statements, since it seems logical that anonymity would be used only when government sources are contradicting, or exposing the falsehood and corruption behind, official government claims.

For that reason, to report official government claims under the guise of anonymity -- as though those assertions are the by-product of some brave leak or vigilant journalistic investigation -- is really to mislead readers. But a substantial amount, if not the majority, of reports based on anonymous government sources is now nothing more than glorified government press releases which access-hungry reporters are (willingly) tricked into viewing as some sort of scoop and therefore passing it on willingly as though it is journalistically verified fact.

After all -- the thinking seems to be -- if one of their "secret sources" tells them something "in confidence" outside of official communication channels, they have scored a coup. And whatever they are told in this manner is newsworthy, even if -- as is so often the case -- what they are told is no different than what the administration is publicly claiming as its formal and official positions.

Both the Times and the Post claim to recognize these dangers of anonymity. The Times claims that they "have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality." They also claim that "[t]he use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy."

The Post similarly recognizes the need to impose strict limits on reliance on anonymous sources. Most assuredly, there are circumstances when anonymity is appropriate -- when a government official is disclosing information that the government wants to conceal, or when he is deviating from the official government position, or exposing corruption and wrongdoing that can jeopardize his job. The Post describes the circumstances when anonymity is appropriate this way:

In some circumstances, we will have no choice but to grant confidentiality to sources. We recognize that there are situations in which we can give our readers better, fuller information by allowing sources to remain unnamed than if we insist on naming them. We realize that in many circumstances, sources will be unwilling to reveal to us information about corruption in their own organizations, or high-level policy disagreements, for example, if disclosing their identities could cost them their jobs or expose them to harm. Nevertheless, granting anonymity to a source should not be done casually or automatically.

But that is rarely how anonymity is used now. With regard to the administration's position concerning Iran, anonymity for government sources has become completely routine, the preferred route used by the administration to disseminate its views and assertions to the public. Not only has anonymity become routine with regard to Iran, it is being used sloppily and in exactly the ways which the Times, for one, has assured its readers it would not be used (emphasis in original):

Whenever anonymity is granted, it should be the subject of energetic negotiation to arrive at phrasing that will tell the reader as much as possible about the placement and motivation of the source -- in particular, whether the source has firsthand knowledge of the facts.

In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.

We will not use anonymous sourcing when sources we can name are readily available.

Literally, the Times is violating every one of those rules time and again, with no justification. As but one example, consider this article in today's Times from one of the worst and most chronic violators of these principles, NYT reporter Michael Gordon. The article purports to examine "one of the questions posed by skeptics about the Bush administration assertions about Iran's meddling in Iraq": namely, "why the charges are coming to light only now"? Gordon notes that "some critics have suggested" -- not Gordon, but "some critics" -- that "the White House is making its assertions now in an effort to blame Iran for the deteriorating situation in Iraq, or that President Bush is trying to lay a legal and political groundwork for a military strike against the government in Tehran."

But the article then proceeds to do nothing -- literally -- except quote one anonymous "official" after the next who rebuts those suggestions and claims the administration is acting honorably. The only purpose of the article is to give a megaphone to anonymous Bush officials to deny that they are attempting to rachet up public hostility towards Iran. In sequence, Gordon quotes "American officials" -- " one military official" -- "military officials" -- and "American officials" -- all of whom claim that the only reason for these assertions is because the Iran-fueled attacks have increased in frequency and are endangering our troops. And Gordon ends with an on-the-record quote from Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, who echoes exactly the assertions of the anonymous sources.

That's the whole article. It's like a press release from the White House rebutting its critics. The anonymous sources provide no information of any kind that deviates from what the administration is claiming in its official channels.

And no information of any kind is provided about these anonymous sources. The descriptions are as vague as can be. And there is no explanation as to why anonymity was granted, what efforts were made to negotiate fuller disclosures, or what the motives or viewpoints of these officials are. It is just nothing more than a Bush administration briefing paper dressed up as investigative journalism and dutifully passed on by Gordon -- exactly what the Times assured its readers it would not do any more.

In fact, Gordon's anonymous sources told him nothing more, and nothing different, than what the President himself said in yesterday's news conference: "But we do know that they're [the Quds force] there, and I intend to do something about it. And I've asked our commanders to do something about it. And we're going to protect our troops." Gordon's article, giving voice to anonymous officials to make these same claims, blatantly violates the Times commitment: "We will not use anonymous sourcing when sources we can name are readily available."

And Gordon should not be singled out. He is doing what many of his colleagues are doing. Atrios yesterday documented multiple cases where CNN's Barbara Starr simply recited blatant Bush administration propaganda under the guise of anonymity:

According to sources we have spoken to today, they do feel they have evidence but they do want to ratchet down the tensions with Iran and the new message point is - we're only here to talk about protecting our troops from Iranian weapons.

Why is it so hard for the media to understand that its role is not to simply echo what Bush officials tell it? That is what P.R. representatives and official spokespeople do. That is what Pravda did, and it is what other government-controlled media outlets do. The Bush administration does not need Michael Gordon or Barbara Starr to be a megaphone for its claims because it has the capability to voice its views and arguments without newspapers and television reporters reciting those claims as their own reporting.

The purpose of journalists is to doubt, investigate and scrutinize government claims, not mindlessly pass them along with the imprimatur of investigative reporting. That is so elemental to the role of the press that it is truly astonishing, and jarring, that it needs to be pointed out over and over. To be accurate, there has been, in isolated cases, some increased skepticism applied to the administration's Iran claims, but the same practices that predominated in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq are largely driving the media's breathless, gullible coverage of Iran.

The Times and the Post and other media outlets claim to recognize these principles in their policies regarding anonymous sourcing, but they are so flagrantly -- really intentionally -- disregarding those policies on a daily basis and it raises serious questions as to why that is. They themselves recognize that their negligent, gullible reporting helped the administration lead us into Iraq based on all sorts of false pretenses, and yet, here they are, doing exactly the same thing with Iran.

* * * * * *

I will be on the Alan Colmes Show tonight, at 11:00 p.m. EST, to discuss a variety of issues, including, I presume, Iran and the media's coverage. Both local listings for the show and a live audio feed are here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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