Thursday, December 09, 2004
The danger of anonymous sources: The use of anonymous sources in journalism is usually discussed in college classrooms in a variety of courses, such as reporting and ethics. Once the student graduates to a real newsroom, all of the pros and cons that were the subject of debate in the classroom seem to just disappear, especially in the so-called elite media.
Today's cautionary tale for young journalists is the once-respected New York Times.
In Monday's paper, the Times featured this story.
Treasury Secretary Is Likely to Leave Soon
By RICHARD W. STEVENSON
WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 - President Bush has decided to replace John W. Snow as treasury secretary and has been looking closely at a number of possible replacements, including the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., Republicans with ties to the White House say.
With the White House having said on Friday that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would stay on for Mr. Bush's second term, Mr. Snow is the only secretary at a major cabinet department whose fate has not been publicly addressed. Administration officials and advisers had been signaling for weeks that Mr. Snow was likely to depart eventually but left open the possibility that he might stay on well into next year.
But in recent days, administration officials have been hinting that Mr. Snow will go sooner rather than later. And an adviser to the White House, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said on Sunday that a firm decision had been made to replace Mr. Snow as soon as Mr. Bush could settle on a successor.
Here we have the anonymous source who wants to remain anonymous because the subject is a "sensitive" one. The individual is also an "adviser to the White House." That description is so vague as to be meaningless. Heck, I could qualify as an adviser to the White House. In this site's referrer logs, I've occasionally seen hits from whitehouse.gov. I've also sometimes said President Bush should do "A" or "B." Combine the two, and voila I'm an "adviser to the White House."
So, what does the Times report today?
Snow to Remain Treasury's Chief, White House Says
By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 - President Bush asked Treasury Secretary John W. Snow on Wednesday to remain in his job, the White House said, after weeks in which Republicans close to the White House had talked openly about his impending departure and said administration officials were interviewing possible successors.
While White House officials did not say how long Mr. Snow might stay on, the announcement came after Mr. Bush and his top aides determined they had to put a stop to an embarrassing public breach over who should occupy the nation's most central economic policymaking post, several officials said.
Oops! Forget about that last report we did ... or not. There's much more to the Times story, most of it unattributed speculation that Snow really was on his way out and references to other unnamed sources.
Mr. Snow has enthusiasts in Washington beyond the president, including Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, a group that has embraced Mr. Bush's tax-cutting agenda.
"What was so bizarre about the last 10 days," Mr. Norquist said, "is that, of course, while he wanted to stay and, of course, the president wanted him to stay, somebody was leaking that he was on his way out."
The leaks were widespread and included signals from senior officials of the administration that it was no accident that Mr. Snow had not received the kind of presidential embrace that Mr. Rumsfeld was given.
Maybe the leaking was an effort to make you guys look like a bunch of dummies? Why use this if people aren't going to stand behind it. Why even report it, since it's obviously a bunch of bunk?
There's no reason to use unnamed sources in this kind of situation. The damage done to journalistic credibility isn't worth the ephemeral boost of "breaking" what, even at its best, was a ho-hum story.