There are all sorts of reasons why sources request anonymity when talking with reporters. Some are whistleblowers afraid of retribution. Others are gossip mongers worried about looking overly-catty. Still others are exercising a grudge against a boss or a colleague.
Several newspapers — including the New York Times and the Washington Post — have launched campaigns encouraging reporters to explain to readers why any given source might wish to remain anonymous. That has led to some truly inventive explanations, and from time to time we have tried to bring you some of the standouts. Our favorite to date came from the Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller, who in March of last year identified a source to her readers as “a senior White House official who asked not to be named because he did not want to be pestered by reporters.” (At the time, we respectfully suggested an amendment: “… because he did not want to be pestered by reporters not named Elisabeth Bumiller.”)
That’s hard to top, and Bumiller’s reign has lasted a solid 18 months. But we think we’ve found a new champion: one Ralph Vartabedian of the Los Angeles Times. Today, Vartabedian brings us a source who requests anonymity for a reason even more primal than an aversion to pesky reporters — in short, a fear of death.
In the story, Vartabedian investigated some of the problems with the front end frames on BMW Series 5 and Series 6 cars. According to the Times, repairing the flimsy frames is unusually difficult for independent body shops, with the result that many BMW owners end up declaring their cars totaled after seemingly run-of-the-mill fender-benders.
“The technology is another step in a much broader auto industry trend that is making collision repairs ever more costly, a kinder way of saying manufacturers are building throw-away cars,” reported the Times. “It means that more cars are totaled when they have relatively modest damage, particularly if they are more than five years old.”
All of which is creating tension between manufacturers, body shop owners, and insurance agents.
At one point in the story, Vartabedian interviews a particularly nervous claims adjuster with AAA — resulting in one of the all-time classic explanations for granting a source anonymity.
“Certainly, people are alarmed,” said the adjuster, who asked not to be identified because he would be handed his head if he were named.
Handed his head! We knew that, in today’s business climate in which corporations spend vast fortunes on PR agencies to micromanage their images in the media, it makes sense that individual employees who go “off message” might feel an increasing sense of peril. But who knew that, in addition to road maps of all 50 states, the good folks at AAA also stock their offices with guillotines?
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for future ways of identifying nervous anonymice who speak to reporters:
So and so asked not to be identified …
… because of a fear of being beaten with socks full of soap while attempting to nap in his cubicle.
…. because of a fear of being drawn and quartered by the assistant to the VP in charge of regional sales and distribution.
… because he is sleeping with the boss’s wife.
And, most frightening …
… because of a fear of being enrolled in a corporate handling-the-media seminar.