Wednesday, June 01, 2005

On the Record, Not for Attribution

That's a phrase most working journalists are bound to know. Often it means the difference between a serious-minded, important story ... and shit.

It seems to me that the amazing admission by Mark Felt that he was the "Deep Throat" of the Watergate scandal comes amid a particularly pivotal time for journalism, which, post-Newsweek, is mired in a pointless debate over the use of unnamed sources.

Several weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal's Joe Hagan pondered the vital role of unnamed sources in journalism. There is no easy fix, he confessed, noting that sometimes an anonymous source is the only way the reporter is going to glean important information. Why? Let's face it. The vast majority of the human race are pussies. We like our jobs. We like our cars. We like our gym and country club memberships and favorite table at the restaurant. Not everyone wants to give that up for the sake of ending corruption.

The WSJ continues:

" 'It's a subject of immense importance to our business,' says Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor of the Washington Post. He says he fears a 'secret government' and adds, 'I think there's not enough use of unnamed sources, frankly.'

"After Mr. Woodward helped break the Watergate story by using anonymous sources 30 years ago, the use of such sources grew. The practice came to be almost taken for granted. But reporters, perhaps better than anyone, realize that the technique cuts two ways: In using unnamed sources, they must always be wary of why the source is revealing the information to begin with -- and what motive the source may have to remain unidentified. There is always a fine line between gaining valuable information and avoiding manipulation by a source with an agenda.

"But in many cases, using unnamed sources is the only way a journalist can relay sensitive news about things like national security and high-level corporate malfeasance. The conundrum: A source who is privy to insider information cannot reveal his or her identity publicly without losing access to that information."

Nowadays, of course, the heat is on the news media to minimize the use of unnamed sources. The budding young reporter is instructed to cut off the wings of the sources, stick 'em with a straight pin, and label them insectus extinctus in the proper corner of the collection. Newsweek says it will crack down on the use of such anonymous motormouths. USA Today has already cut its percentage of unnamed sources used last year by 75 percent (leaving more time for graphs and the latest on Ashton Kutcher's syphilis, thankfully). And more newspapers are following suit, scared of getting burned or libel suits or incurring the wrath of a White House that equates fallible reporting with treason.

Don't be fooled by what it means for a news organization to reduce its reliance on unnamed sources. Parse it any way you want, but ultimately such a promise is a euphemistic way of announcing that it will be scaling back significantly on investigative journalism.

Some defenders of a free press are worried, and rightly so. The Christian Science Monitor's Randy Dotinga explains why. "With an eye on the exposes of the past," he writes, "some fear anonymous sources will become endangered species, perhaps preventing exposure of the next Watergate."

The most honest, tell-it-like-it-is assessment I've come across on this topic is Joshua Micah Marshall from Talking Points Memo:

"Make no mistake about it: were it not for the use of unnamed sources, we would know virtually none of what we currently know about the inner workings of our government. The same goes for almost any powerful institution in our society.

"Can anonymous sources spread lies or misinformation without having to answer for it to the public they deceive? Of course they can. But that's what makes a good journalist such a good thing and a bad one such a disaster. Society needs journalists as a conduit of information. That makes the use of anonymous sources essential -- often, in fact particularly, on those stories which have the greatest public consequences. And it is the work of journalists to evaluate the credibility of those sources and what they say before bringing them to public light."

"That almost always means independently verifying what you've been told. But sometimes that's simply not possible. On a particularly sensitive issue, you'll try to get multiple sources confirming the same point. But any experienced journalist knows that it's often easy to get half a dozen people to confirm something they probably have no way of knowing is true. That's one of many reasons why the so-called 'two source' rule isn't nearly as clear a guide to action as it's sometimes portrayed as being."

For anyone who cares deeply about the stunning gifts that are the American free press, for anyone who respects a governmental watchdog that is vigilant and tough-minded and fair, the last few years have been downright frightening.

The news media has worked hard to diminish its own relevance with stupid stunts and convergence strategies and operational paradigms and all sorts of other bullshit doublespeak in which consultants demonstrate that their brain matter is slathered in fecal-coated corn. The idiots of mediocrity are shameless and failures, and you can see most (but not all) of them on local TV news.

But the more alarming assault on the new media is that which rumbles from its avowed enemies. Wild-eyed pricks on Capitol Hill who eat babies and grouse that they're "outraged over the outrage" of Abu Ghraib, a horrific story that was uncovered with the help of anonymous sources. Saliva-sucking White House spinmeisters who lie, cheat and prevaricate for the sake of a beady-eyed former drunk, and then turn around to warn those pesky reporters that they're got to "watch" what they say. Administration tattlers who expose the identity of a CIA operative (with the particular help of a douchebag of a columnist) in hopes of getting her bore of a husband to drop his anti-Bush tirade.

Thank God. Thank God that a frail and feeble 91-year-old man pulled himself up from his wheelchair and told Vanity Fair to spread the word: He is "Deep Throat." That's right; Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein named their anonymous source after a blow-job queen in what was then the hottest X-rated picture of all time. That's how much reverence an anonymous source was given back in the early Seventies. That's how serious and dicey these young reporterss felt about their source. Maybe "Rim Job" was already taken as a moniker. Who knows?

But you know what? That elusive, shadowy sonuvabitch helped bring down a corrupt presidency and changed the course of the nation.

Remember Mark Felt the next time someone growls about the press. And make no mistake. They'll growl, all right. They'll be growling up until this entire country is the spittin' image of Brit Hume.


At 9:00 AM, Blogger OKPartisan said...

That was a beautiful defense of the best of journalism. "All the President's Men" made me want to be a reporter. We need tenacious and smart investigative reporters now more than ever.

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Dr. Pants said...

Like all businesses, money is the real problem. Or greed, really.

Newspapers need advertising -- it's no secret. But when the pursuit of advertising takes precedence over the pursuit of news, everybody loses.

So the media takes a few P.R. hits from the government. Suddenly, newspapers, some of which are already holding on by a thread (not really, but higher ups always play it like the huge profits they're seeing aren't enough), start to panic. The reporters don't care -- we just concentrate on the news. But the decision makers above fret and pace and tell us, "No more unidentified sources!"

Newspapers (along with the Internet, the last REAL sources of in-depth news) lose readers because we play it safe, covering American Idol all day long, people trust us less and the ones we're supposed to be watching laugh all the way to the bank, because without an independant press, they can get away with anything.

At 2:26 PM, Blogger MDC said...

If nothing else, Felt should be commended for holding out so long and not "cashing in" despite living through a few decades during which everybody "cashed in" on everything. Now I'm just waiting for each major network's take on the True Story of Deep Throat in Amy Fisher/Jessica Lynch movie of the week-style...

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even now, after three decades, the bile spewed by Pat Buchanan and Chuck Coulson is warm with vitriol. Each man attacked Felt like a hyenah rips apart a nearly dead animal. It was horrifying on Chris Matthews last night. And then worse on the Today show this morning...where producers let these two knuckleheads puke their poison unchallenged during the first 20 minutes. Only later--in the much lower rated second half hour--did Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw (he's an idiot) come on to refute Buchanan and Coulson's twisted spin. (Today, by the way, devoted part of its first half-hour yesterday to an interview of the Vanity Fair reporter who wrote a new story about Michael Jackson...snore...they apparently thought that was more important that speaking to the Vanity Fair correspondent who broke the Deepthroat piece in the same issue...which is worthy of an entire post in itself).
The Internet is not the only place to get in-depth news. It's merely an untrustworthy vitamins. Newspapers and some magazines are the real deal, no matter how scaled back. Blogs like this are a wondeful way to hash out issues...but they're not where to turn to get the skinny, the whole skinny and nothing but the skinny. Also, as a footnote, it was someone on the metro desk who named Deepthroat...sick of calling him Woodward's friend on deep background. Another interesting footnote: Felt lived on Redford Lane. I think I'll go home tonight at watch the movie again. Even with the ancient typewriters in the background, this movie never ages.

At 10:43 PM, Blogger Lady Godiva said...

Thanks for the commentary. As a college student of the Watergate era, I'm thrilled to finally know the identity of Deepthroat. And will always think of him as a hero along with Woodward and Bernstein. Caught the Coulson/Buchanan crap and really got me pissed off.


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