Dana Priest: ‘We Need To Crack Down on Anonymous Sources’

By: E&P Staff

The four-part PBS “Frontline” series on the media kicked off this week. As extensive as it is, it can feature only a few quotes from the dozens of interviews conducted for the show. However, PBS.org is now carrying the transcripts of more than 50 interviews.

E&P has been running excerpts from some of them all week, looking so far at Bob Woodward, Bill Keller, and Judith Miller, among others.

Today we feature Pulitzer-winning Washington Post national security reporter Dana Priest, as she discusses an especially hot topic this week (relating to claims about Iranian weapons in Iraq): anonymous sources. She believes in cutting back on their use.

An excerpt from the transcript follows. The interviewer is Lowell Bergman.

Q. Would you go to jail to protect your sources?

I would. Absolutely. …

Q. When you see reporters testifying about a confidential source, as in the Plame case, that doesn’t cause you to worry about the status of confidential sources?

Yes, of course it does. … And that worries me as much as seeing reporters get into a situation where they’re actually testifying and disclosing their sources. Somehow the debate over the Plame case … is weighted on who are the sources and the confidentiality and the journalistic ethics. It’s not on the information, the value of the information that gets out there. …

Q. In Washington, people have lots of off-the-record or confidential conversations all the time on all kinds of things, not just secret prisons.

Right. I think the press is guilty of allowing sources to ask for anonymity in far too many places.

Q. To getting spun, you mean, by the sources?

Even if the information is not spun, but they just don’t want their names attached to it. You have spokesmen who are paid by U.S. taxpayers to be the spokesmen for their agencies, and they won’t put their name on simple statements. That’s in part because we’re not calling them on it enough, and I think that we should.

Papers and networks are not good at working together, but I would absolutely support an effort by us collectively to say, if you’re a spokesman, you have to have your name on the record. We need to crack down on the use of anonymous sources when it’s not absolutely necessary.

And now you’re going to ask me when is it actually necessary. It is all a judgment call, but it has gotten overused, absolutely.

Q. Out of control?

It’s gotten out of control. USA Today stopped using them, and they were successful. They got people to be on the record with things that they initially said they wanted to be on background and not quoted. So I think we should do a better job trying to get people to be on the record.

Q. You, [New York Times reporters] James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, all got Pulitzer Prizes. Is that the community trying to make a statement?

I hope so. I think it’s a great statement to make. Those two stories were worth our effort; they were worth the angst that we’re going through now. And they, I think, are critical again for the public to assess what its government is doing in the name of the war on terror. To the extent that the journalism community wants to send a message that they also agree with that, I’m all for that. I also think they were difficult stories to do, and even if they weren’t making a statement about the value of information [being] out there, that they stand on their own as unique reporting.

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