Responsible journalistic practice requires journalists to identify sources,
But responsible journalistic practice also requires journalists to inform the public about matters of importance.
In some cases, however, those fundamental responsibilities collide, something we have witnessed in this election season, though they have long been a point of contention.
At the center of the current controversy over anonymous sources in the media is the op-ed essay in the New York Times, ostensibly written by an unnamed senior official in the Trump administration and calling the president erratic and amoral: "Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles."
According to the author, the president's "impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed, and occasionally reckless decisions."
The writer says, however, that there are "unsung heroes" (himself or herself among them) who are trying to save the country from the president -- "working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations." But it raises the question: If things are as bad as they say, shouldn't the author(s) be willing to be identified?
The Times said that publishing the article without identifying the author "is the only way to deliver an important perspective."
Soon after that anonymous essay appeared came the publication of Bob Woodward's latest book, "Fear: Trump in the White House," aspects of which parallel the op-ed in the Times. Woodward's book portrays "an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader" and what he describes as a "nervous breakdown" in the executive branch.
As was the case with many of his 18 previous books, Woodward relies heavily on unidentified sources. Woodward first found fame when he and Carl Bernstein were instrumental in unraveling the Watergate scandal. The two young Washington Post reporters were able to obtain information revealing the corruption and illegal activities within the Nixon administration. A major source for Woodward and Bernstein as they pursued their investigation was nicknamed "Deep Throat." He remained unidentified for 33 years until Mark Felt, who had been a deputy director of the FBI, acknowledged he had been the source.
Woodward has strongly defended the use of confidential sources, although he has had many critics who argue that his techniques can lack accountability. However, no one has knocked major holes in his books. When he talked with journalism students at the University of Arkansas in 2015 he emphasized that he adheres to agreed ground rules in interviewing sources. He maintains that "deep background" can actually result in more accountability in government and can be more accurate because sources aren't worried about losing a job or being reprimanded. In a "note to readers" in this latest book, Woodward says interviews were conducted "under the journalist ground rules of 'deep background,'" which means that "all the information could be used but I would not say who provided it." He says he had hundreds of hours of interviews with first-hand participants and witnesses, nearly all of whom allowed him to tape-record the interviews.
On "Fox & Friends," an ardently pro-Trump TV program, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed back on what she called "fictitious claims" in Woodward's book, asserting it is filled with quotes from anonymous sources, as opposed to having officials on the record.
Looming over all this is President Trump's relentless attack on what he calls "fake news" and his labeling of the media as "the enemy of the people." Last month there were coordinated editorial responses by more than 300 newspapers denouncing what the Boston Globe, which initiated the effort, called a "dirty war against the free press."
There has been, in fact, some extraordinary and valuable reporting on the Trump administration. And it is true that the cloak of anonymity can be essential to revealing the truth, and that without confidential sources some important subjects might never come to light.
There are, however, some dangers here for those troubled by the Trump administration. In some respects, the anonymous op-ed in the Times can play into the hands of Trump's supporters. And the use or over-use of anonymous sources can damage the credibility of the media and their vital role in our society. In turn, this can reinforce anti-media sentiments and bolster Trump's insistence on viewing the media as "the enemy."
As veteran journalist Ted Koppel wrote recently, Trump has turned reported evidence of his many failings into confirmation of his victimhood. That perception is then echoed through the megaphone of conservative radio and Fox News.
There is no doubt that use of anonymous sources has been overdone. Anonymity should be granted only in rare circumstances. Confidential information can, however, be critical to journalists in carrying out their responsibility to inform the citizenry about matters of importance, particularly in this era when truth has often been distorted or disregarded.
Commentary on 09/19/2018
Print Headline: Anonymity and credibility