Fox News Cites MRC Study to Question Liberal Media’s Love of Anonymous Sources

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On Wednesday afternoon, Fox News Channel’s Outnumbered Overtime dedicated a full, four-minute-plus segment to the latest NewsBusters study by research analyst Bill D’Agostino, which quantified at the liberal media’s ongoing obsession with anonymous sources through the lens of the impeachment inquiry.

Host Harris Faulkner began by noting that “a new study finds the broadcast news networks relied at least in part on information from anonymous sources while reporting on the impeachment inquiry” and that the study found the broadcast network evening newscasts used “more than 300 minutes of airtime” to cover impeachment.

 

 

The on-screen graphic summarized D’Agostino’s key findings, which were that 54 percent of impeachment coverage on ABC’s World News Tonight, and 60 percent of reporting on the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News respectively relied on anonymous sourcing

Faulkner then read one quote from D’Agostino’s piece and brought in McClatchy’s Dave Catanese, who wholeheartedly defended the practice (click “expand”):

FAULKNER: Bill D’Agostino writes, “The result is a deluge of hearsay reporting that looks more like a game of telephone than serious journalism.” I want to bring in now David Catanese, national correspondent for McClatchy. What is your response to that description? 

CATANESE: I would say that's how much of the reporting Washington goes on. Not only on the Hill for this impeachment proceeding, but from the White House every day. Reporters are asked to get on background calls with congressional officials, with the White House, with campaigns, and it's always an agreement that these sources on those calls are granted anonymity. And this is how a lot of the information gets transferred. Just today, we had reports, you know, based on anonymity that the transcript from this Ukrainian phone call with the President, that words from the transcript were left out. Those are based on anonymous sources. This is how Washington works in a lot of ways —

FAULKNER: That’s interesting.

CATANESE: — because a lot of the sources don't want to be held accountable, in case there’s political blowback. 

Faulkner countered by alluding to the near-constant leaks from closed-door congressional depositions that the public hasn’t been able to hear and evaluate on their own, but Catanese stated that “I don’t necessarily think of the ball has moved” in journalism away from anonymous sources because it’s a fundamental practice despite growing distrust of the press.

“I think journalists and newsrooms have to determine when to grant this anonymity, and should push back some times when — when these sources shouldn't be anonymous. I think the question is, is this information vital to the public discourse,” he added.

Faulkner went to Catanese for the final back-and-forth by again reading from D’Agostino’s study and, as expected, Catanese defended anonymous sources. 

He even conceded that the public would be surprised by how much of it goes on and that we would be far less informed without them (click “expand”):

FAULKNER: I do want to get this in. So, the study’s author also added this: “The New York Times stylebook similarly deems anonymity ‘a last resort,’ warning: ‘Anonymity must not become a cloak for personal attacks.’” That's interesting, David. 

CATANESE: You know and I think they — they may need to update that, because a lot of The New York Times reporting — and a lot of it is very good, important reporting, is based on anonymous sources. I know at McClatchy we need at least two sources for everything that we — we put in a story. Sometimes that is more difficult.

(....)

CATANESE:  I think every news organization in this entire — you know, in the entire country has a different standard for how many sources you need, and the disclosure of those sources, but — but the counter to that is not having the information. There's a lot of people in this town who will not talk to you, who will not get on the phone, if you don't grant them some sort of protection. And that would mean that you’d get a lot less information day-to-day on the biggest stories....I think the public would be surprised to know that every day, reporters are meeting with sources and granting them anonymity[.]

In actuality, peeling back the curtain on this swampy practice would likely only cause the public to loathe the press even more.

To see the transcript of the full segment from FNC’s Outnumbered Overtime on October 30, click “expand.”

FNC’s Outnumbered Overtime
October 30, 2019
1:39 p.m. Eastern

HARRIS FAULKNER: A new study finds the broadcast news networks relied at least in part on information from anonymous sources while reporting on the impeachment inquiry. The Media Research Center indicates in the month since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the launch of the inquiry that more than 300 minutes of airtime have been devoted to this, between the three major news networks. Bill D’Agostino writes, “The result is a deluge of hearsay reporting that looks more like a game of telephone than serious journalism.” I want to bring in now David Catanese, national correspondent for McClatchy. What is your response to that description? 

DAVID CATANESE: I would say that's how much of the reporting Washington goes on. Not only on the Hill for this impeachment proceeding, but from the White House every day. Reporters are asked to get on background calls with congressional officials, with the White House, with campaigns, and it's always an agreement that these sources on those calls are granted anonymity. And this is how a lot of the information gets transferred. Just today, we had reports, you know, based on anonymity that the transcript from this Ukrainian phone call with the President, that words from the transcript were left out. Those are based on anonymous sources. This is how Washington works in a lot of ways —

FAULKNER: That’s interesting.

CATANESE: — because a lot of the sources don't want to be held accountable, in case there’s political blowback. 

FAULKNER: Yeah, you know, what's fascinating about that? We are hearing that some of that has come from these behind-closed-doors interviews, or depositions and — and clearly, that is not in the public sphere. So now they are talking to people that we can't access. Has the ball moved on how much the public should know about sourcing? 

CATANESE: I don't — I don’t necessarily think of the ball has moved. I think, you know, this has happened throughout the history of journalism. I think the media coverage of it definitely has gotten a wider lens on this stuff, because there is more mistrust, frankly, of reporting on both sides. The media has become more polarized. But you know, there’s also — you know, I think journalists and newsrooms have to determine when to grant this anonymity, and should push back some times when — when these sources shouldn't be anonymous. I think the question is, is this information vital to the public discourse? Does it trump knowing who actually dispensed information? Or does it not? And I think that's a question for every news organization, every journalist, as they wrestle with this. 

FAULKNER: I do want to get this in. So, the study’s author also added this: “The New York Times stylebook similarly deems anonymity ‘a last resort,’ warning: ‘Anonymity must not become a cloak for personal attacks.’” That's interesting, David. 

CATANESE: You know and I think they — they may need to update that, because a lot of The New York Times reporting — and a lot of it is very good, important reporting, is based on anonymous sources. I know at McClatchy we need at least two sources for everything that we — we put in a story. Sometimes that is more difficult. Sometimes —

FAULKNER: It used to be three for most of us. 

CATANESE: Well, it used to be, but I don't know what Fox's standard, either, but —

FAULKNER: No, I mean in my quarter-century of journalism.

CATANESE:  — right, but again, I think every news organization in this entire — you know, in the entire country has a different standard for how many sources you need, and the disclosure of those sources, but — but the counter to that is not having the information. There's a lot of people in this town who will not talk to you, who will not get on the phone, if you don't grant them some sort of protection. And that would mean that you’d get a lot less information day-to-day on the biggest stories, you know, from — from —  from the Capitol Hill, from the White House, and political campaigns. I think the public would be surprised to know that every day, reporters are meeting with sources —

FAULKNER: Sure.

CATANESE: — and granting them anonymity. And background, not disclosing. I think it is our job to try and get as much of a description into our news copy as possible. 

FAULKNER: Alright, David Catanese, today. Thank you very much. Good to see you. 

CATANESE: Thank you.

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