But It was Reliable Anonymous Hearsay

A reporter called me today and asked whether I had noticed an interesting point relating to the story of the airplane that inadvertently strayed into prohibited airspace over Washington, and caused the Capitol to be evacuated. I hadn’t; but I checked it out, and he was right.
Yesterday, the Washington Post carried a rather sensational article titled “Military Was Set to Down Cessna.” The very first sentence of the article said:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave military officials the authority to shoot down, if necessary, a small plane that wandered into restricted airspace over the nation’s capital May 11, according to two senior federal officials.

The Post’s report was immediately met with a denial by Rumsfeld that he had ordered any such thing, as the Post reported this morning: “Rumsfeld Disputes Plane Story”:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday denied giving military officials authority to shoot down, if necessary, a small plane that violated restricted airspace over Washington on May 11.
Speaking in Philadelphia, Rumsfeld disputed accounts of two senior federal officials reported by The Washington Post yesterday, saying, “It was totally not true.”
According to a Reuters news service report, Rumsfeld said: “It was two anonymous sources, and, of course, it wasn’t true. I never even got on the phone to discuss the circumstances of the little plane.”

Here is the interesting part: if you keep reading in today’s story, you get to this:

The officials said they were told that Rumsfeld gave authorization to shoot down the plane if military officials declared it a hostile threat. Because of such factors as the aircraft’s slow, constant speed and course and the apparent disorientation of its pilots, that declaration was never reached, they said.
“I was told at the time . . . if this individual is threatening, authority has been given to take it down,” one of the officials said yesterday. He added, “I was told that Rumsfeld gave that implied authority.”

So the two officials whom the Post relied on for its original story had no first-hand knowledge of Rumsfeld giving any such orders; they were “told” that he had done so. Yet the Post’s first story clearly implied that the “two senior federal officials” were relating facts, not hearsay or surmise.
So the Post’s lead sentence–someone apparently thought it important that Rumsfeld himself had issued the order–reported anonymous hearsay as fact. What is important here is not so much the error itself; I assume that someone other than Rumsfeld did indeed issue some kind of order authorizing the plane to be shot down under specified circumstances. But it does illustrate, I think, one of the problems with the mainstream media’s addiction to anonymous sources. When we don’t know who the source is, we can’t evaluate whether the source is in a position to know the facts that he claims to be true. And now we know that the Post will print anonymous hearsay as fact.
This is one more item of evidence, I think, supporting the conclusion that the whole issue of anonymous sources needs be rethought from the bottom up.


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