The Tyranny Of The Anonymous

by Jonah Shepp

Jack Shafer rails on news outlets for being way too generous with anonymity for their sources:

An Aug 13 Times piece noted that U.S. administration officials “spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.” This justification has become so popular in modern journalism that when you drop it into Nexis, the database burps and informs you that the query will return more than 3,000 stories containing the passage or something very close to it. If a lower anonymity bar than “was not authorized to speak publicly” exists, I cannot imagine it. Very few people are authorized to speak publicly in government, corporations, and institutions. Does that mean that anybody who has accepted a muzzle can expect anonymity from the press? The huge numbers coughed up by Nexis support that notion.

Another anonymity justification that rattles Nexis’ foundations is the source who “spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.” On Aug. 12, the sensitive-topic source was an Iraqi official speaking the Washington Post. And what sort irreplaceable information did the official impart? “We are entering a potential clash. … On the ground, [there are] tanks and armored vehicles. It’s a very complicated situation with the army.” Yes, yes, tanks, armored vehicles, and a complication situation! Very sensitive information. For giving the paper these gems, the source deserves placement in the Post‘s witness protection program.

I learned a lot about the perniciousness of anonymous sources while working as a newspaper editor in Jordan, a country whose press isn’t censored or brutalized as it is in, say, China or Iran, but isn’t exactly “free” either. I can’t tell you how many times I had some variant of the following conversation:

Me: Who’s this “source in the ministry who declined to be named”?

Reporter: Well, actually, it’s the minister himself. But he doesn’t want to announce this officially yet, so he asked me not to use his name.

Me: That’s dishonest.

Reporter: I know, but if I quote him by name he’ll get mad at me and stop answering my phone calls.

Me: …

…and so of course we’d quote the minister anonymously. The lame explanations Shafer cites (“not authorized to speak to the press” and “because of the sensitivity of the topic”) appeared in the paper daily, and still do. But that’s not because The Jordan Times is specifically lacking in journalistic integrity: rather, journalistic integrity is simply not an option in a country where the anonymous government source is often the only source available, and where looking for other, better sources can get a journalist in all sorts of legal or extralegal trouble.

Of course, hardly anybody in the government is “authorized to speak to the press”, but leaking information – or misinformation – through anonymous sources is a great way to establish a veneer of transparency without any real accountability. It’s also a great way to mislead the public that a source is speaking against the government’s wishes, when in fact he is revealing exactly what he’s been instructed to reveal. One of the most important lessons I took away from that experience is that crafty, illiberal governments can still exercise significant control over an ostensibly “independent” press, through vague laws, self-censorship, “soft containment”, and anonymity as the rule rather than the exception. The payoff comes in the form of praise and aid from Western governments for whom press freedom in name alone is too often good enough.

In light of that lesson, the scourge of government anonymity in the American press is even more unsettling. While Shafer’s right to criticize the NYT and the WaPo for lowering the bar here, what worries me most is that the leak-by-anonymous-source method of engagement with the media has become standard operating procedure in Washington. A government that can’t tell the public what it’s up to without hiding behind vague statements from nameless officials is simply not to be trusted, and a press that goes along with it is not quite as “free” as we’d like to think.