Journalism’s Never-Ending Debate on Anonymous Sources: Enough Already!

Just this past Sunday journalism’s unceasing debate on anonymous sources reared its head again. In the October 13 Sunday Review section of The New York Times Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s fifth public editor, wrote about “The Disconnect on Anonymous Sources.” Dan Okrent, first public editor from 2003 to 2005, confronted the same issue during his tenure. Even then, novelist and New York magazine columnist Kurt Andersen had already had enough: “…the customary righteousness, disingenuousness, futility and wonky tedium of such debates are for me almost unbearable.”

Little has changed since Andersen wrote those words in 2005. Ms. Sullivan embodies fair-minded and thoughtful journalism, but when she concludes her piece by proposing that “anonymity is granted gratuitously, “that “it’s happening too often,” and therefore that “it’s time again to pull in the reins,” she’s talking precisely the kind of high-minded piffle Anderson deplored. While she quotes her paper’s national security editor Bill Hamilton admitting that “it’s almost impossible to get people who know anything to talk,” and even harder to get them to talk on the record, she has no answer to journalists “caught in this dilemma.”

That’s why one of the country’s most successful investigative reporters on national security, Seymour Hersh, filled his stories in The New Yorker with quotes from anonymous sources.  That magazine’s editor, when questioned about the practice when compared with USA Today’s restrictions on it, shot back: “How many national security stories has USA Today broken?”

The NYT’s own David Carr had the most perceptive take on the issue Ms. Sullivan looks at from a high ground rarely inhabited by both, sources and the reporters who cultivate them: “Anonymous sourcing is an ethically neutral tool that’s only as good as the people using it.” That’s why, for example, nobody objected to Woodward and Bernstein relying on one anonymous source (Mark Felt aka Deep Throat) to expose Watergate and perhaps, as some suggest, save American democracy.

The public editors at the NYT may respond too much to the complaints by some of its readers, particularly those in influential positions within the Boston to Washington political or financial establishment. Most readers or viewers don’t care if it’s an on-the-record or anonymous source informing a story that helps them render an issue or topic accessible or clear.

Members of the media should focus on issues more vital to the media’s role in our society than that of anonymous sources in their stories.  As Andersen recounts, Woodward told The Wall Street Journal that “the great danger to America is the formation of some kind of secret, unaccountable government, and so a hyper aggressive press is more important than ever.” Well, only a few reporters, such as Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine are pursuing what they call “the government of Goldman Sachs,” the immense control Wall Street exercises over both political parties. A hyper aggressive press is aggressive primarily in its pursuit of the personal foibles of celebrities, including the headliners playing in the halls of Congress.

And that may be why Anderson reaches the terse and melancholy conclusion that “there are ten or a hundred times as many on-the-record lies as lies as unattributed lies in the press every day.”

If that is true, and it probably is, it could make for an important and lively discussion among representatives from the media and students of American culture.

Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, and served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.

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