Washington Post Ombudsman Defends Use of Unnamed Sources

The Washington Post’s new ombudsman Deborah Howell, in only her second article in her new position, chose to defend journalists’ use of unnamed sources. Of late, this has become quite a hot-button issue, as an increasing number of articles from more and more media outlets seem to rely almost exclusively on anonymous suppliers of information, supposedly from within the White House.

In fact, in the past week, two of America’s leading magazines, Newsweek and TIME, published articles about turmoil inside the White House with bold predictions about changes to come within the administration. The latter just Monday claimed that deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, Treasury Secretary John Snow, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are all about to leave the White House in a huge administration reshuffling.

Yet, in both of these reports, not one source was named. This makes the beginning of Howell’s article even more disturbing:

“Anonymous sources, always controversial, have become even more so since the CIA leak case, in which several reporters gave information about such a source – I. Lewis Libby – that resulted in his indictment on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury, and his resignation as Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff.”

This raises an interesting question: Why would Plamegate give even more prominence to anonymous sources? Given the jailing of Judith Miller of the New York Times, compelling her to reveal the name of the person who told her about Valerie Plame, wouldn’t journalists be less apt to report information coming from a source that refused to go on the record?

Furthermore, as it appears that many of the journalists involved in this case ended up eventually revealing their sources, why would anybody give a reporter anonymous information these days? With the indictments to I. Lewis Libby, and the possibility of significant jail-time and financial penalties, why would any rational individual trust that the reporter receiving the information would preserve their anonymity?

Oddly, Howell’s article addressed this, which made her opening paragraph even more curious:

“The thought of reporters testifying as prosecution witnesses in the Libby case frightened many at the conference. Lucy Dalglish, a lawyer and former reporter who is executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, ‘The public must have access to truth as much as possible, but reporters can’t become agents of government prosecutions or civil litigants.’ Most participants felt there should be a federal law to shield reporters from having to identify their sources; most states have laws offering some protection.”

But there currently isn’t such a law. And yet, according to Howell, as well as from what is anecdotally evident, the importance of unnamed sources has increased. Maybe most interesting, when Howell questioned Post reporter Peter Baker on this issue, he responded:

“You’re right, too many of our stories have anonymous quotes in them and perhaps this was an instance when we could have done without… but in the secrecy-obsessed Bush White House… anyone who talks – often those simply delivering the company line – can risk being shut out, so they don’t like to jeopardize that. But… you raise a good point and we need to be as stingy as we can be on these sorts of things.”

So, like everything else that’s wrong in this country, anonymous sources are also the Bush administration’s fault.

Howell finished her article:

“This is just the first column I’ll write about anonymous sources. I’d like to hear from readers and journalists—and public officials—on this topic.”

Well, Deborah, since you asked, you began your first article in your new position two weeks ago:

“I’m the new ombudsman on the block. I have two goals in this job: to foster good journalism and to increase understanding between The Post and its readers.”

With that in mind, why don’t you encourage your editors and reporters to follow the guidelines of the previous editor, Ben Bradlee? If you recall, before he published the intricate details surrounding the Watergate break-in, he demanded that someone corroborate “Deep Throat’s” accounts, and go on the record.

That was good policy for journalists and media outlets then, and is sorely lacking now.

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Noel Sheppard's picture