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Leaks and loose lips have characterized our political communication at various points in our history, though seldom to the extent we are currently experiencing.

The term "loose lips" was featured on posters during World War II to caution against careless comments that might allow the enemy to get information about ship movements or obtain other national security knowledge. Today the term takes on broader meaning, applying to the tendency toward indiscriminate and uninhibited talk, often untrue.

Leaks have been an enduring factor in government-media relations. Providing "confidential" information to journalists is common practice in political circles and has figured in some of the most important news events and scandals in our history.

Leaking is a time-honored effort to orchestrate or influence coverage from behind a curtain of anonymity. Most administrations have been plagued by leaks. Indeed, it was because of persistent leaks that the Nixon team created the "plumbers" to try to identify and plug leaks. That clumsy effort was one step along the path that led to Watergate, the label for the complex web of scandals of the early 1970s. Much of the reporting on Watergate resulted from leaks from unattributed sources.

Lyndon Johnson was frequently frustrated by media reports, based on leaked information, that painted a different picture of what was occurring in Vietnam than his administration's optimistic claims. This contributed to the "credibility gap" that so tormented him.

Now, we see the Trump Administration dealing with leaks about leaks. Among the more recent controversies were stories about White House officials seeking help from the FBI in knocking down reports about communication between the Trump team and Russia. The White House wanted the FBI to say that the media reports were wrong and that there had been no contacts. This followed the forced resignation of Michael Flynn as national security adviser. He originally denied speaking to Russia's ambassador to the U.S. about sanctions and the White House branded such reports as "fake news." But Flynn's dismissal basically confirmed that it wasn't faked.

Trump called for an investigation after FBI sources leaked information about the White House requests for help by leaking information disputing leaked accounts about contact between Trump officials and Russia.

According to leaked reports, Press Secretary Sean Spicer conducted a surprise phone check on his staff in an attempt to stamp out leaks. Upset that information had leaked from an earlier meeting, it led him to carry out the phone checks. As reported by Politico's sources, Spicer warned that there would be more problems if news about the phone checks and the meeting about leaks was leaked, which it promptly was.

Although Trump wants to track down leakers, at the same time he accuses news organizations of inventing the sources of the leaks, adding that the leaks are real, but the news based on the leaks is fake.

Such is the dizzying state of government-media relations today.

As part of his broad assault on the media, Trump berates news organizations for using anonymous sources in their reporting related to the administration. Trump says media should not be allowed to use such sources (a provision that would certainly conflict with the First Amendment), saying, "They just make up stories and make up sources."

Studies I have conducted over the years on the extent of and rationale for the use of anonymous sources do point to over-dependence on such sources. Too often, journalists aren't sufficiently rigorous in attempting to identify sources. However, confidential information can be vital to journalists' duty to inform the public about important matters. Many of the most important investigative stories of our time have been based, at least in part, on information from unnamed sources.

Trump himself frequently cites unnamed sources and favors comments such as "I have heard" or "I have been told ..." And we remember his "I love Wiki Leaks" assertion from the campaign or his encouraging Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton's emails.

This leads to the loose lips tendency. There is no shortage of examples. We've come to expect the bizarre cases of loose lips from the Trump camp, dating back to claims that thousands cheered in New Jersey as the World Trade Center came down in 2001 to more recent examples of inaccurate claims about terrorist attacks in Sweden and Bowling Green or insistence that there have been terrorist attacks no one knows about because the media chose not to report them.

Social media provides openings for false and unsubstantiated claims, in some cases giving them more acceptability, particularly when prominent political figures repeat them.

And over-reliance on anonymous sources is a primary cause of public distrust and erodes the credibility of the media.

Both the presidency and the press need credibility in order to carry out their responsibilities and credibility ultimately depends on truth and transparency.

Trump is determined to portray the news media as the enemy of the people.

And the media face an awesome challenge and weighty responsibility in searching for truth in this era of leaks, loose lips and uncertain sources.

Commentary on 03/01/2017

Print Headline: Leaks, loose lips and sources

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