The New York Times’ Anonymous Sources

New York Times BuildingYesterday, I wrote, NYT Creating Talking Points for Republicans. It was about how the same reporting team managed, in the last six months, to provide the Republicans with two major anti-Democratic talking points that turned out to be completely wrong. They were both based upon anonymous sources. Because the article got pushed back a few days, there has finally been some response from The Times. Most notably, their public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote, Systemic Change Needed After Faulty Times Article.

On Friday, she spoke to executive editor, Dean Baquet and the Washington editor, Bill Hamilton. And they both agreed that these were major problems. But they said that there is no reason to believe that the sources had a political agenda. Rather they were just incompetent — not knowing the difference between public and private messages. Further they noted that the reporters were both excellent. I mentioned that myself when I wrote about it. One of them had won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting before.

“But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism — a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.” —Margaret Sullivan

I wonder about the whole process. Sullivan noted, “But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism — a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.” I wonder about that. I have a hard time believing that these stories would have been so causally pushed through editing and to publication if they had been damaging to Republicans. As usual, it isn’t because I think The Times is conservatives, but rather that it perceives itself as being the opposite. It is constantly attacked as the “liberal media” and so anti-liberal hogwash more easily makes it onto its front page.

Anonymous Sources

But the editors seem united on one thing. As Baquet said, “This was a really big mistake, and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.” I agree. The New York Times has been too dependent upon anonymous sources. But there’s a problem. Margaret SullivanThey already have a policy about anonymous sources. They’ve had it for a very long time. It has its problems. In particular, it is vague. For example, its 2007 policy claims, “The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy.” That sounds like a mighty fine idea. But isn’t it the case that we constantly get anonymous government sources that are saying nothing but that the government is right or its enemies are wrong? Yes, it seems we see that each and every day in The New York Times.

Back in 2011, Janine Jackson at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) wrote, But You Didn’t Hear It From… Anyone. In it, she provided an example where a “top Israeli official” was given anonymity to provide some of the most innocuous, milquetoast comments one could image. Even more absurd:

Likewise, the Times stands, in principle, against anonymity “as cover for a personal or partisan attack.” The actual paper, on the other hand, contains stories like one (10/4/10) in which “an executive at Fox News” is provided incognito so he can express “astonishment” that Barack Obama would single Fox out for criticism: “We are so in his head,” he taunted. “Can you believe with all the other things going on in this world he’s preoccupied with Fox News?”

She also talked about the ridiculous policy of telling readers why the source is anonymous, “But the explanations are patently ad hoc and random.” And in the article at hand, there is no justification as to why these sources are anonymous — or indeed even that they are anonymous. All the article stated was, “American law enforcement officials said…” And far from being a little used technique, in the week 1 October 2011, FAIR found that between a fifth and a quarter of front page stories in The Times and The Washington Post used anonymous sources.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the problems that reporters face. But it is mostly a question of efficiency. It would be harder for newspapers to do the work they know needs to be done to properly report the news. But I really have a problem with The New York Times editors claiming that they are going to do something about this. We’ve already been through Judith Miller; that’s why we got the 2007 policy change. This new case could lead to a policy change. But the paper won’t follow it and we will get the same old garbage again.

16 thoughts on “The New York Times’ Anonymous Sources

  1. I don’t like anonymous sources. It means there is next to no accountability and it seems like it is too easy to just make something up. Plus as the person from FAIR pointed out-it lets someone attack without letting the person attacked face their attacker.

    • I’m fine with anonymous sources, but it clearly is out of control. Deep Throat was a great anonymous source because the reporters knew what ax he was grinding. These days, I don’t see that kind of understanding. Why were people putting out this information? I’d like to know.

      • There is that-no reason for that person at Fox to be unknown-it is not like it would change anything with his job since I doubt his bosses would care.

        • That example is amazing. There is absolutely no justification for that kind of thing. But the stats of 20% of articles involving anonymous sources. I think that says it all. Most reporting is pretty standard. This is mostly just laziness.

          • I need to find out how much of a percentage is it from just the reporters checking to see what is trending on Twitter.

            • I like that. “A twitter user who requested anonymity outside of Twitter said the president was a doo-doo face.”

                    • Even if they really deserve to be working at The Mayberry Picayune?

                    • I was thinking Weekly World News. Oh wait, they have rules and requirements to be factual according to Rat.

                    • I loved that paper. I remember Jim Hogshire defending it when I noted one headline about a sea monster found in one of the great lakes. Jim used to work for a tabloid in Florida. He said, “If I filed that report, there would at least be one witness on record having seen it.” It was a good point; much mainstream reporting doesn’t have that much. If you want to know more, read his book, Grossed-Out Surgeon Vomits Inside Patient!: An Insider’s Look at the Supermarket Tabloids.

                    • I shall put it on the list. Now the question is-was that witness supposed to have been sober at the time?

                    • With a lot of people I doubt it much matters. People believe and “see” some very strange things.

                    • This is true. Why this past summer I saw a man dress in an ant suit and become really small!

                    • And you don’t want to see Harrison Ford play the Alec Guinness part in the seventh version of that film!

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