May 25th, 2005

Tracing the use of the anonymous source

Well, it turns out you can blame it on Watergate.

The recent prominence of anonymous sources in the Newsweek Koran-flushing story tweaked my curiosity about the history of the practice.

To the best of my recollection, the newspapers of my youth attributed every quote to an actual named person–not that I was paying a whole lot of attention at the time to subtleties like that. Now, however, it seems as though articles are often merely glorified gossip columns full of anonymous commentary–a sort of “he said, he said” kind of journalism–especially any article written by Seymour Hersch, which usually consists of nothing but a long string of such tidbits.

The only thing we know for sure is the identity of the article’s author. We are asked to take the facts on trust, without a chance to evaluate the source of the remarks. This over-reliance on the anonymous source gives both the journalist and his/her informant an overwhelming power, and takes away our ability to judge the veracity of what we are being told. I believe it’s one of the most pernicious trends in journalism.

This practice seems to be the logical development of a phenomenon that started with Vietnam and became stronger with Watergate. As I’ve written earlier, during that era many people’s attitudes towards the government and the military became more negative, while their attitudes towards the press became correspondingly more positive, in a sort of reciprocal seesawing movement. As trust in the press grew, it seems that the time-honored journalistic methods of sourcing, previously acting as a system of checks and balances against the power of the press, were now considered unnecessary.

The most famous anonymous source of them all, of course, was Deep Throat of Watergate fame. He was not only a seminal (pardon the pun) figure in Nixon’s denouement (and thus a hero to liberals everywhere), but he was so renowned that he had his own nickname, taken from a popular porn flick. It turns out that Deep Throat had another claim to fame: he was the trailblazer in the practice of relying on anonymous sources, now so commonplace in today’s journalism.

I had suspected all along that Watergate might be at the heart of it, but it was difficult to document when I first tried to do some online research on the subject. I finally struck pay dirt with this article from American Journalism Review. It’s hardly up-to-date (it was written way back in 1994), but it was the only discussion of the history of anonymous sources that I could find. It turns out Watergate was indeed a watershed in the use of this practice:

Although confidential sources predate Watergate, they were infrequently used before that celebrated story, which produced the most famous unnamed source of all time. Deep Throat, whose identity remains a mystery, helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down Richard Nixon in 1974. After that, the use of anonymous sources flourished, with many reporters considering it sexier to have an unnamed source than a named one.

Unfortunately, it’s only gotten worse since then. See this, if you want to remember the good old days:

“Of course, you talk to everybody when you begin a story,” says Philip Scheffler, a senior producer for CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “Off the record. On the record. In the record. For background. Not for attribution no matter what. But it’s not the raw notes we are talking about. We are talking about what goes on the air.” And “60 Minutes” does not use anonymous sources on the air.

Would that that last sentence were still true!

And how about this guy:

There’s not a place for anonymous sources,” says Allen H. Neuharth, founder of USA Today and chairman of the Freedom Forum. “I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism – the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate – where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can’t overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them.

Where is Mr. Neuharth now? Retired to Florida and eighty-one years old–which makes him something of a dinosaur, I guess. As recently as 1998, though, he was still speaking out against the use of the anonymous source, which he calls evil. Here’s an excerpt from a 1998 interview with Neuharth:

Traditionally journalists were taught to believe in accuracy above all else. And that changed. I think it changed with Watergate, and I think the anonymous source is the most evil thing that newspapers and the media have adopted or adapted in the last 25 years. It started with Watergate, (when) journalists coming off college campuses (were) determined to be (Bob) Woodward or (Carl) Bernstein. They believed that because of Watergate’s successes there was dirt under every mat in front of every office. They came out as young cynics. The journalists of my generation were taught to be skeptics. And there’s a hell of a difference between a skeptic and a cynic. All you need to do is be accurate and fair.

Sounds about right to me.

Back when that 1994 American Journalism Review article was written, there was apparently a great deal of variation in the rules for using anonymous sources–some papers used them liberally at the time, and some vary sparingly or not at all. I wonder whether some papers have kept their integrity in this regard, and resisted taking the low but easy road.

Reading the article, I waxed nostalgiac for those pre-9/11 concerns that we all knew and loved. It’s all about things like the OJ trial, and Janet Cooke’s bogus Washington Post story about the imaginary 8-year-old heroin addict. No international repercussions are even dreamt about, no terrorists or Islamofascists waiting in the wings to pounce on any story (although, of course, they were there all the time).

My impression is that the use of anonymous sources seems to be something like alcohol–seductive and habit-forming. In that 1994 article, everyone keeps talking about going on the wagon and curbing the practice, but very few have actually done so. Apparently it’s too enticing to give up, for so many reasons–getting a sensational story, beating the competition, laziness, habit.

Is there any hope, short of Mr. Neuharth coming out of retirement? Well, in 2003 a group of eighteen well-known journalists were brought together by Poynter to make recommendations about improving journalism. They came up with this set of extremely sensible-seeming rules for the use of anonymous sources. If followed, they would eliminate a lot of trouble:

• Anonymous sources should be encouraged to go on the record.

• We should weigh the source’s reliability and disclose to readers the source’s potential biases.

• The more specific we can be in describing the source in the story, the better.

• Anonymous sources should not be used for personal attacks, accusations of illegal activity, or merely to add color.

• The source must have first-hand knowledge.

• Journalists should not lie in a story to protect a source.

I don’t know why these guidelines haven’t been widely adopted. I guess the bottom line is that journalists have become far too addicted to the easy fix that anonymous sources provide them.

Like all addictions, this calls for a 12-step program, right? I even have a name for it: ASA, Anonymous Sourcers Anonymous.

12 Responses to “Tracing the use of the anonymous source”

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  3. Goesh Says:

    In all fairness, I should have listened to the whole presentation last night. I was betting to myself that Iran was probably not even going to be mentioned, or perhaps maybe in passing reference to the effect of ‘ we heard a report a couple of years ago that there was an incident of human rights violation in Iran’….something along those lines. In light of Dan Rather and Newsweek, one would think AI would tidy up a bit. I think they are fueling the fires of ignorance with blanket condemnations based on ‘reports’ the validity and accuracy of which need to be closely examined for once. This sacred cow needs a swift kick in the udder if based on ‘allegations’ America is then condemned for running a gulag.

  4. karrde Says:

    I’ll agree with you, Esmay.

    I could probably send a news reporter shopping around my academic Department for gossip/innuendo, and urge that reporter to publicly defame a particular member of the Dept.

    Such is probably true in any organization with more than ten members.

    I wonder, what was the prevalence of anonymous sourcing (or opinion as news) in the heydey of yellow journalism? Or was yellow journalism noted for different abuses of new media?

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Goesh–Amnesty and I parted ways some time ago, but they can’t take “no” for an answer. See here.

  6. Goesh Says:

    Talking about anonymous sources, I listened for about 10 minutes to an Amnesty International report on human rights last night. Holy cow! In about every other sentence there was a “it is reported” or “allegedly” or “we were informed” thrown our way, as if there could and should be no doubt at all the horror stories were the absolute gospel truth and the whole world should stop, gnash their teeth, wail and rend their garments because of it. Talk about an organization with a political axe to grind. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Milosovich all look like choir boys compared to evil America, at least according to Amnesty International. The White House had countered the slam by saying roughly 50 million people had been liberated by the US from the taliban and saddam hussein.

  7. WichitaBoy Says:

    The blogosphere, by contrast, is a step in the opposite direction, with the real source just a quick of the mouse away in most cases. Honest people like Roger Simon are posting their original documents right there for all to see. Let us all hope that the blogosphere continues to rise at the expense of the arrogant, deceptive, and hateful MSM.

  8. camojack Says:

    “Like all addictions, this calls for a 12-step program, right? I even have a name for it: ASA, Anonymous Sourcers Anonymous.”

    The American Sailing Association might not appreciate that.

    I’m just sayin’…

  9. Dean Esmay Says:

    The most pernicious effect of the anonymous source is that it’s very easy to shop around any company, government office, etc. and find some mid-level person who has a vendetta or an axe to grind, puff him up with feelings of importance, and cajole him to say almost anything you want him to say–or just shop for another such flunky.

    Sy Hersh has made an entire career out of this–and is often fawned over as a “real” journalist by people who love him for the sole reason that he tells them everything they want to hear.

  10. Pancho Says:

    I suspect, in a way, TV had something to do with it too. The rush to have a printed story out to meet or beat the nightly news has caused some sloppy and irresponsible journalism.

  11. THIRDWAVEDAVE Says:

    Since Terry Moran mentioned the other day that much of this is the result of a “hangover from Viet Nam,” I guess a 12-step program would be fitting.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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