The casual, corrupting use of anonymity for political officials

In the wake of the widespread abuse of the practice during the Bush era, media outlets promulgated noble rules governing the use of anonymity, and now violate them routinely.

Published March 6, 2009 11:32AM (EST)

(updated below)

For an administration flamboyantly vowing new levels of transparency, the Obama White House continuously relies upon one of the most un-transparent political weapons:  namely, disseminating to the public -- typically through sympathetic journalists -- purely pro-administration assertions while hiding behind a journalistically baseless grant of anonymity.  There are numerous manipulative and distorting effects from having government officials make pronouncements while remaining anonymous, one of the most significant of which is that there is no accountability whatsoever when they make false or misleading statements.  Today we have a perfect illustration of that lack of accountability.

In order to assuage concerns among progressives that the Obama administration intends to follow in the Bush administration's footsteps by trying to cut Social Security benefits, high-level Obama officials have been telling journalists such as The American Prospect's Ezra Klein -- on the condition of anonymity -- that they have no intention of touching Social Security, producing reports which then faithfully communicate that message, such as this one from Klein, two weeks ago:

What people at the White House have told me on Social Security -- and what I wrote in the post she's referencing -- is that there's no intention to touch Social Security in the foreseeable future. It's not a priority and it's not a political winner. . . . The problem, they say, is health care, not Social Security, and that's where the White House is focusing.

Based on those same anonymous conversations, Klein wrote other posts telling progressives who are worried about Obama's intention to cut Social Security that they were worrying about something that doesn't exist.

But in The New York Times today, David Brooks recounted what he described as "conversations with four senior members of the administration."  Those unnamed Obama officials all called Brooks in order to refute his column from last week which argued "that the Obama budget is a liberal, big government document that should make moderates nervous."  Brooks -- like Klein -- granted anonymity to and then proceeded to quote all four "senior members of the Obama administration" (a) without explaining why he did so, (b) without describing efforts, if any, to persuade them to use their names and (c) without providing any information about who they are or what their motives might be (all flagrant violations of the supposed NYT policy governing the use of anonymity).  These paragraphs were the result of the anonymity Brooks gave to the Obama White House (emphasis in original):

Besides, the long-range debt is what matters, and on this subject President Obama is hawkish.

He is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.

What Klein's anonymous White House sources told him ("there's no intention to touch Social Security in the foreseeable future") is directly contrary to what Brooks' anonymous White House sources, two weeks later, told him (Obama "is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security").  But there's no way to resolve those contradictory White House claims because Klein and Brooks allowed these officials to hide behind anonymity when making these claims.  That's what anonymity does -- it allows dubious or even false government claims to be spouted with impunity and without any accountability. 

That's why anonymity is such a valuable weapon for government officials and such a risky and questionable practice for journalists.  If the claims from Klein and Brooks' sources are true about the intentions of the White House, then why can't they just attach their names to those claims and why aren't they made to do so by the journalists before having their statements amplified to the public?

This practice was so widely abused during the Bush presidency that journalists and their news organizations engaged in all kinds of tortured public discussions -- and even promulgated guidelines for the proper use of anonymity -- all of which, since then, have been almost entirely ignored.  There are, of course, narrow circumstances in which anonymity is not only justifiable but crucial -- namely, when whistle-blowing government officials risk their jobs or even careers to divulge damaging information that the Government wants to hide -- but that obviously isn't how anonymity is being used in the vast majority of cases by Beltway journalists, such as those documented here.  

Instead, anonymity is now eagerly granted to any government official the minute they ask for it -- even when they are doing nothing but spouting the official, pro-administration line -- by journalists eager to be chosen as the White House's anointed message-carrier and who are therefore willing to agree to any conditions imposed by the White House in exchange for that "honor."  In 2005, The Washington Post's Walter Pincus described the harm that comes from such casual use of anonymity:

But no matter what legal protections exist, journalists should pause before handling information received from people who demand anonymity. Reporters should avoid promising anonymity to sources if it is being offered simply to encourage the source to say something in a dramatic or damaging way that the source would not say on the record. This use of anonymity harms the profession and diminishes the value of the confidentiality given to those who are whistleblowers—people who risk their jobs and jail for what they may believe is a higher cause.

Or, as supreme journalist Izzy Stone put it in explaining how the U.S. Government was able, with such ease, to disseminate so many lies to the public through journalists during the Vietnam War (h/t Jeff Cohen):   "The process of brain-washing the public starts with off-the-record briefings for newspapermen. . . ."

I'm not singling out Brooks and Klein here.  This is how Beltway journalism largely functions.  Obama officials routinely are allowed to speak to the public while hiding behind journalist-granted anonymity, just as Bush officials did.  It's the central objection I had to Marc Ambinder's reporting on the state secrets controversy:   by granting anonymity to DOJ officials to justify without challenge why the administration did what it did, those government officials were allowed to spout utter nonsense, filled with internally contradictory and incoherent claims, without any accountability whatsoever, because they were allowed -- with zero journalistic justification -- to hide behind a wall of anonymity when making their case.  While this practice is pervasive, it's also squarely at odds with the rules which journalists claim to affirm regarding the use of anonymity.

Writing at Nieman Watchdog in 2007, The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin surveyed the abuse of anonymity during the Bush years and issued a set of guidelines for when it is journalistically appropriate (and inappropriate) to use it, including:

Don’t assume anything administration officials tell you is true. In fact, you are probably better off assuming anything they tell you is a lie. . . .

Don’t print anonymous assertions. Demand that sources make themselves accountable for what they insist is true. . . .

Offer the greatest and most guaranteed degree of confidentiality to whisteblowers offering information that contradicts the official government position. (By contrast, don’t offer any confidentiality to administration spinners.)

The precise uses of anonymity which Froomkin described as illegitimate are exactly the uses of anonymity which, far and away, are the most common when allowing administration officials to make claims to the public.  Just compare what David Brooks was just allowed to do in his column with what the NYT claims is its policy on anonymity:

Readers of The New York Times demand to know as much as possible about where we obtain our information and why it merits their trust. For that reason, we 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 . . .

In routine interviewing – that is, most of the interviewing we do – anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source. Exceptions will occur in the reporting of highly sensitive stories, when it is we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us. . . . .

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.

The Washington Post has a similar policy with similar rules ("Merely asking should not be sufficient to become anonymous in our stories").  I can't even remember the last time I saw a journalist use an anonymous source when any pretense was made to adhere to those "principles."  Does anyone doubt that "merely asking" is all high-level White House officials have to do -- and what they typically do -- in order to be granted anonymity any time they want it?

This week, Politico's Michael Calderone wrote a story describing what has long been painfully obvious to anyone with a pulse:  that political reporters commonly publish sycophantic, flattering profiles of politically powerful officials in order to gain favor with them in the hope of getting future access (Calderone featured, as one egregious example, the incomparably sycophantic, 5,200-word fanboy love letter sent by access-dependent Ryan Lizza to Rahm Emanuel via The New Yorker that I wrote about last week).  In other words, they're pretending to offer a journalistically sound, balanced profile of a government official when, instead, they're deliberately churning out rank propaganda -- drooling hagiographies -- in order to secure for themselves future career-advancing benefits by becoming a favored message-carrier for the royal court (credit to Calderone for publicly describing a corrupt little ritual which Beltway journalists generally keep concealed and for including an example from his own publication -- though it's worth noting that, during the Bush years, Politico was one of the most shameless practitioners of this device, yet suddenly decided, six weeks into the Obama presidency, that it needs exposure).

The casual, baseless grant of anonymity to White House officials -- to do nothing other than disseminate pro-administration spin -- is quite similar to that practice, both in intent and effect.   It allows government officials to use journalists to disseminate their claims without any accountability.  And it ensures that the journalist willing to grant anonymity this way will continue to be chosen for future message-conveying missions.   Obviously, journalists who refuse to play this game (such as David Cay Johnston) will simply be ignored when it comes time to plant a "White House officials told me" story (notably, reporters who break real stories exposing Government secrets, by using anonymity in its proper form, are not the ones found engaging in this behavior).  Casual, automatic, journalistically baseless and unexplained grants of anonymity to high-level political officials are a win for the government officials and a win for the loyal, message-carrying journalist, but not for anyone else.  Quite the opposite.

* * * * * 

Speaking of Izzy Stone, I learned this week that -- along with Democracy Now's Amy Goodman -- I've been named as the receipient of the first annual "Izzy Award for special achievement in independent media" by The Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.  Details are here.  Once I know them, I'll post the details of the March 31 award ceremony, which is free and open to the public. 

Even though he died in 1989, Izzy Stone basically invented blogging -- the tone, content, function and format -- and was a practitioner of journalism in its purest and noblest form.  A few months ago, a commenter here linked to the online archive that contains every one of Stone's newsletters for the 18 years that he produced it (from 1953-1971), and I spent many hours reading through all of them.  That's basically the dictionary definition of "adversarial journalism."  I also consider Goodman to be a living, breathing embodiment of what independent journalism should be, so the combination of those two makes this award one that I greatly value.


UPDATE:  Anyone who harbors any doubt about the serious dangers of allowing an administration -- including this one -- to function without meaningful checks, see these two posts from Atrios (here and here) and today's column from Paul Krugman, which, among other things, documents the Obama administration's use of anonymity to circulate and re-circulate the same discredited banking plan over and over in slightly different forms.

By Glenn Greenwald

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