Why do journalists expect to have credibility?

Promiscuous anonymity continues to grow despite their acknowledgment that it destroys their credibility

Published March 7, 2010 1:08PM (EST)

(updated below)

Clark Hoyt, New York Times Public Editor, March 21, 2009:

THE Times has a tough policy on anonymous sources, but continues to fall down in living up to it. . . .Last year, at my request, a group of journalism students at Columbia University studied anonymous sources in The Times and concluded that their use was actually down by roughly half since a strengthened policy was adopted in 2004. But the students said the paper failed to follow its own rules for explaining them nearly 80 percent of the time. . . .With my assistant, Michael McElroy, I took another look at the issue after The Times was burned this year by anonymous sources peddling false information about Caroline Kennedy. Given the examples we found -- nonessential and even trivial information attributed to anonymous sources, personal attacks, and inadequate details about a source’s credibility -- I think it is time again for a forceful rededication to the newspaper’s own standards.

Andrew Alexander, Washington Post Ombudsman, today, on Jason Horowitz's "Rahm-Was-Right" story last week:

A greater problem, I think, was its heavy reliance on anonymous quotes. At least a dozen people were quoted by name, showing depth of reporting. But there were more than a half dozen others quoted anonymously, comprising more than a quarter of the story's length. Most supported Emanuel.

Readers properly complain about The Post's overuse of anonymous sources. They're often unavoidable, and Horowitz said he granted anonymity only after failing to persuade sources to speak on the record. But assertions offered with impunity erode credibility, especially when politically savvy readers suspect that Emanuel supporters are trying to spin The Post.

In the first two months of this year, more than 70 Post stories have relied on anonymous quotes. Based on archival research, that's well ahead of the pace for last year. Simply put, too many appear in The Post.

[David] Broder said he was troubled by the number of anonymous sources in Horowitz's story. "I think it's a general problem at this paper". . . . But Broder's column criticizing Milbank and Horowitz contained a beefy section that anonymously reported "what others in the White House think is going on" with Emanuel."I'm not pure about it," Broder readily acknowledged. "I did it myself."

The greatest blow to the credibility of establishment journalism over the last decade -- especially the NYT and the WP -- was their active, enthusiastic involvement in disseminating outright falsehoods to their readers in the run-up to the Iraq War.  So glaring and destructive were their failures that even they were forced to acknowledge at least some of what they did.  One of the principal steps they took in assuring their readers that they were determined that this would not happen again was the adoption of clear rules which stringently limited the use of anonymity.  Anonymity was a key instrument used by dishonest government officials and subservient reporters to disseminate those pre-war falsehoods.

Despite all that, they continue to violate their own guidelines over and over by indiscriminately using anonymity in the most reckless ways.  And they know they do it, because it's been repeatedly documented, even by their own ombudsmen and reporters.  Yet they blithely continue.  What other conclusion could a rational person reach other than that the publishers, editors and reporters of these newspapers neither care about nor deserve journalistic credibility?  Just think about it:  in the aftermath of the Iraq debacle, they announced:  We know we have lost credibility and here are rules we will follow to win back that credibility, only for them to then systematically and continuously breach those rules over and over, thus replicating exactly the behavior that led to the loss of credibility in the first place. 

In very limited circumstances, anonymity is valuable and justified (e.g., when someone is risking something substantial to expose concealed wrongdoing of serious public interest).  But promiscuous, unjustified anonymity -- which pervades the establishment press -- is the linchpin of most bad, credibility-destroying reporting.  It enables government officials and others to lie to the public with impunity or manipulate them with propaganda, using eager reporters as both their megaphone and shield.  It is the weapon of choice for reporters eager to serve as loyal message-carriers and royal court gossip columnists.  It preserves and bolsters the culture of secrecy that dominates Washington -- exactly the opposite of what a real journalist, by definition, would seek to accomplish (though most modern journalists seem to prefer anonymity, as it makes them appear and feel special and part of the secret halls of power, and allows them to curry favor with powerful officials as their favored loyal message-carrier).  In sum, petty or otherwise unjustified uses of anonymity are the hallmark of the power-worshiping, dishonest, unreliable reporter (which is why its most indiscriminate practitioner is Politico).   As Izzy Stone put it about the Vietnam War:  "The process of brain-washing the public starts with off-the-record briefings for newspapermen. . . ."

Literally on an almost daily basis, one reads sentences like this in all leading newspapers -- from a NYT article yesterday describing growing (and, of course, magnanimous) U.S. military involvement in Somalia:  "An American official in Washington, who said he was not authorized to speak publicly, predicted . . . . "  In other words, the "official" is dutifully delivering an authorized government message (i.e., propaganda) but has been instructed to demand anonymity when announcing it (he's "authorized to speak," but not publicly), and reporters virtually always comply.  Or, anonymity is used for petty, gossipy, manipulative purposes, such as when Rahm's friends ran to subservient reporters such as Dana Milbank and Jason Horowitz to plant accountability-free hagiographies of the royal court official whose bidding they were doing.  All of this, on a daily basis, passes the scrutiny of multiple reporters and editors, who know that they are systematically breaching their own rules of journalistic credibility but obviously aren't bothered by it in the least.  That's why -- despite the isolated good works of establishment journalists -- they collectively neither have nor deserve credibility.


UPDATE:  One related point about the spate of "Obama-should-have-followed-Rahm's-centrist-advice" articles that have appeared of late:  if you really think about it, it's quite extraordinary to watch a Chief of Staff openly undermine the President by spawning numerous stories claiming that the President is failing because he's been repeatedly rejecting his Chief of Staff's advice.  It seems to me there's one of two possible explanations for this episode:  (1) Rahm wants to protect his reputation at Obama's expense by making clear he's been opposed all along to Obama's decisions, a treacherous act that ought to infuriate Obama to the point of firing him; or (2) these stories are being disseminated with Obama's consent as a means of apologizing to official Washington for not having been centrist enough and vowing to be even more centrist in the future by listening more to Rahm (we know that what we did wrong was not listen enough to Rahm).  One can only speculate about which it is, but if I had to bet, my money would be on (2) (because of things like this and because these "Rahm-Was-Right" stories went on for weeks and Rahm is still very much around).

Of course, the reason we have to speculate about such matters is precisely because journalists suppress the identity of those who are doing this, leaving us with a bunch of unaccountable royal court gossip and intrigue, the authors of which are completely shielded by these "journalists."  That's why anonymity more often than not obfuscates rather than enlightens.

By Glenn Greenwald

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