The Times and its Anonymous Sources

We and others have battered the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers for consistently using anonymous sources as a means of advancing their political agenda while avoiding responsibility for the accuracy of the “news” they print. Responding to the criticism, the Times adopted a new policy on the use of anonymous sources in 2004. Today, Public Editor Clark Hoyt discusses a study by the Columbia Journalism Review that assesses how much the new policy has impacted the paper’s practices.

I’m not sure the study proved much of anything, as it was based on reading a mere six issues before and after the policy was implemented. For what it’s worth, the study concluded that articles relying on anonymous sources fell by about half.

What is perhaps more interesting is how Hoyt talks about the problem of anonymous sources. He agrees with critics that using anonymous sources makes it impossible for readers to judge the credibility of the source and can enable laziness on the part of reporters. But Hoyt agrees with the paper’s editor, Bill Keller, that it would be “high-minded foolishness” to stop basing articles on anonymous sources altogether. Hoyt argues that anonymous sources “have provided some of the most important information in The Times, like the disclosure of the Bush administration’s extralegal bugging of international communications.”

Here, I think, we get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes you need to use anonymous sources to undermine a Republican President, and nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of that goal. (Hoyt’s description of the NSA’s international terrorist surveillance program as “extralegal” is an evasion. The word “extralegal” has no meaning. If Hoyt meant to say that the program was illegal, he is wrong. The program was legal under every existing federal court precedent both when it was established and as of today.)

Hoyt concludes by quoting approvingly Keller’s justification that “[w]e cannot bring readers the information they want and need to know without sometimes protecting sources who risk reprisals, firing, legal action or, in some parts of the world, their lives when they confide in us.” Keller’s reference to “legal action” is a backhanded acknowledgement of the fact that sometimes, the Times is participating in the commission of a crime when it publishes classified information from anonymous sources in violation of federal law. This happens, of course, only when the public really “needs to know” the information that the source wants to disseminate illegally. In practice, this “need to know” arises when the Times’ reporters and editors think the information will reflect badly on a Republican President or Presidential candidate.

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