By: Greg Mitchell
Late last week, a group of top journalists conducted a valuable symposium at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., under the title, ?The Seduction of Secrecy.? On hand were Geneva Overholser, Bill Kovach, Tom Curley, Alex Jones, Lucy Dalglish, Jack Nelson, and others — a stellar group. A few excerpts from the transcript have appeared elsewhere.
Unnoticed was one particularly fascinating exchange between Jack Shafer, media critic for Slate, and Philip Taubman, Washington bureau chief for The New York Times. It’s wonderful because rather that speaking generally, it zeroed in on one particular example of anonymous sourcing — and the complainer found himself (perhaps by surprise) taking his case directly to the editor who approved the sourcing.
It began with Tom Rosenstiel citing his Project for Excellence in Journalism’s recent “State of the Media” report, which found that 7% of all stories studied in 16 newspapers contained anonymous sources. This actually represented a 29% decrease since last year, he said.
Ken Paulson, editor of USA Today, then described his paper’s fairly tough policy on using unnamed sources. Overholser, the moderator, then asked Taubman what he thought about all off this.
Taubman revealed that his paper, in fact, is ?doing a reexamination of our own practices, which we are doing again this year to try to tighten up in some areas, it’s been a major focus of what we are trying to do. I am involved in a sub-group of this effort that’s looking at how the New York Times can rely less on anonymous sources.
?We understand that it is eroding our credibility, as it is the rest of the American press, and that it is a particularly acute problem in Washington. So we are developing some new practices that we are going to be proposing to Bill Keller with an expectation that within a month or two we’ll kind of move on to the next phase of our effort.? He pointed out that the Times had started this process last year, calling the revised policy ?great? but acknowledging that ?the execution has been very erratic. So we are trying to crack down in this area.?
Overholser then, innocently (we presume), asked Slate’s Jack Shafer, who has long railed against the ?anonymice? in journalism, if he could ?give us some particularly awful examples of anonymous source use.?
I’ll let the transcript carry the ball from here. Umpires: You make the call.
Shafer: Well, I’m glad you asked, because I want to puncture the pep-rally quality of this morning’s session by pointing out that we in the press are not quite as scrupulous and combating of anonymous sources as we’d like to say. We’re not always victims. In many cases we’re collaborators.
Today’s New York Times has a news analysis piece by Todd Purdum. Now I single out Purdum not because he’s a hack but because he’s one the better journalists working in Washington. And The New York Times is one of the better papers available in this town.
In this piece he writes — this is a brand new anonymous source description, and I’ve looked at a lot of them. He writes, “One of Mr. Wolfowitz’s” — this is about the nomination of Paul Wolfowitz to the World Bank — “One of Mr. Wolfowitz’s associates, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to steal the spotlight, said he expected Mr. Wolfowitz would continue the anti-corruption efforts of the departing president, James D. Wolfensohn, and demand fresh accountability from governments that receive aid.” And then there is a long quote from this anonymous source basically that says that Wolfowitz is going to stamp out corruption and do fantastic things.
And this is really quite cute here: “One of his first passions” — this is the anonymous source speaking in quotation — “One of his first passions was development, and when he was ambassador to Indonesia in the Reagan years, he was out there with the chicken farmers, and he’s kind of made for this job in some way.”
No one put a gun to Todd Purdum’s head and said you’ve got to run this. Presumably an editor at The New York Times read this as well. Why this person was given anonymity, why Todd even wrote this story and made the source anonymous, I’d like one of the learned editors in this room to explain to me.
Overholser: Let’s hear from learned Phil.
Taubman: And in fact, I edited that story.
Overholser: We turned to the right guy.
Taubman: So, I’ll say a couple of things. First of all, unrelated to that story, I also looked at the rest of the package on Wolfowitz yesterday, and what you don’t know, which there is no reason that you would know it, is that actually we eliminated a number of anonymous sources and information and quotes in that package. I just excised them out and went back to the reporters and said that there is really no reason to include this and if we are going to live by our own policy we are going to have to do better.
And in terms of Todd’s piece, my own feeling about that comment was that as self-serving as it was in terms of Wolfowitz and his reputation, it enlightened me a bit about what his plans were for the World Bank, and that was an important piece of information, to understand that he was going to emphasize combating corruption and some of the other things. So to me, it was not an example of a useless, trivial anonymous source that added nothing to the story.
Shafer: Why wouldn’t he be against corruption? I mean it would have been news, I think, it would have been worth my fifty cents for the paper this morning if he had said he expected Mr. Wolfowitz would encourage corruption.
Taubman: No, but look, you know I know I am going to be on the losing end of this exchange, but I will plunge ahead anyway. I think that’s a little glib, Jack. You know, the question of what the new head of the World Bank will emphasize, not all heads of the World Bank by any means, have made an effort to combat corruption. Corruption is a huge issue in the development world. It may be the single biggest problem in getting development aid out in effective ways to the people who need it.
So to me, you know, it’s not a kind of, “Well, it’s so obvious, why did you bother putting it in?” I think I would have much preferred to have had it on the record, but I do think the whole comment from that particular person told me something, and I hope it told our readers something about what his priorities would be, and that’s all I would add.
Shafer: And to be less glib, why should someone who is giving a tongue bath be given anonymity? I mean, this justification that “as not to steal the spotlight,” doesn’t seem to me to be that urgent, that credible of a reason to give a source anonymity.