In nearly 30 years as a print journalist — all but four of them here in my native state of Arkansas — I cannot recall using anonymous sources as the basis for a story.
I can vaguely recall citing an anonymous source as the origin of a story, but further reporting had documented the actual facts included in the story. Indeed, journalists regularly get anonymous tips, which are not the same as sources. A good tip basically inspires a reporter’s curiosity to go find out whether the tipster is right. Sometimes they’re not and what had been pitched as a “great story” withers in the face of facts.
Many a journalist have seen what would be a compelling story evaporate once their reporting demonstrates the initial tip was simply wrong.
The use of anonymous sources has been a frequent topic over the years, but President Donald Trump and reporting on his presidency has helped drive that conversation to new levels.
The big news out of the nation’s capital last week focused on a memo drafted by James Comey back when he was still director of the FBI. Trump recently fired Comey.
New York Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt, who broke the story, did not see the memo, in which Comey immediately after a Feb. 14 meeting with the president detailed his recollection of what happened. Comey said the president met with him privately and told him “I hope you can let this go,” referring to an FBI investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his interactions with Russia.
Of course, some will malign Schmidt as just one of those media “liars” Trump likes to talk about. It says something about Schmidt, however, that he’s also the reporter who broke the news that Hillary Clinton had used a personal email account when she was secretary of state.
In the Comey story, Schmidt cited “two people who read the memo” and those sources read parts of the memo to the reporter.
Should readers be skeptical? You bet they should, but when it comes to Washington, nobody should write off information solely on the basis it originated with sources who remain unidentified.
I really don’t like anonymity. In a perfect world, people would be able to speak out and stand behind what they say. But I can easily understand why people within the administration of a president might not see it as beneficial to their futures when they’re revealing vital information to a reporter. When the early 1970s FBI leader famously known as “Deep Throat” helped guide Woodward and Bernstein through the Watergate scandal, was it a cowardly practice or a service to the nation?
Should the public know about Comey’s memo? I’d say unequivocally yes. Others will disagree. I’m not saying President Trump is guilty of anything, but more generally, should a president or his administration be able to get away with unethical or illegal behavior just because it can be hidden via the powers of the federal government?
And let’s not forget Trump’s own reputation as a bully. President Trump, after firing Comey, used his ubiquitous Twitter feed to threaten that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
If a president is willing to publicly attempt to bully a fired director of the FBI, isn’t it fair that lower-level government officials knowledgeable about key developments the public should know might have reason to desire anonymity? If Trump adviser Steve Bannon is willing to develop an “enemies list” of congressmen who voted against the president in the health care debate, what might this administration do to federal employees suspected of speaking to reporters?
Back when Trump spoke to the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference, he decried the use of anonymous sources.
“They have no sources,” he said. “They just make them up when there are none.” Then Trump went further: “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be put out there.”
That would naturally put all the power to cover up illicit behaviors in the hands of the president and his staff. Of course a president would prefer to limit anything but his pre-approved messaging.
Just a few hours before his CPAC appearance, ironically, Trump’s own staff offered a briefing to reporters only on the condition that they not cited by name.
My experience with anonymous sources is no doubt extremely limited in part because I’ve focused my career on local journalism, where there just isn’t that many situations in which a story must be based on an anonymous source. But in Washington, D.C., it’s standard operating procedure for government officials to speak to reporters only on the condition that their names will not be used.
Americans should maintain a level of skepticism when material is coming from anonymous sources. But too many news stories out of Washington from the anonymous sources have proven to be largely accurate to suggest Americans don’t benefit from them.
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Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWAGreg.
Print Headline: Who said that?