Me! Use Me!

Unnamed sources have their way with -- and say in--the NYT

To political campaigns and newspapers alike: beware campaign “advisers” willing to say ill-advised things to reporters—when offered the cloak of anonymity. So much can be achieved when you know your name will not be associated (at least not in print) with your words: agenda-peddling, score-settling, trial-balloon-floating, hand-forcing, bone-picking, itch-scratching…

This is not news to anyone in or covering politics. And yet, in today’s New York Times piece about the Hillary Clinton-Norman Hsu fundraising controversy, there are no names attached to any of the quotes (direct or paraphrased) for the first fifteen (of nineteen) paragraphs. The entire article is based on, as promised in the lead, what Hillary Clinton’s nameless “friends and advisers say.” (With “friends and advisers” like these…)

For example, the Times’ Patrick Healey reports: “Advisers say Mrs. Clinton is not so much furious about the scandal, as she is worried about containing the political damage.”

Which “advisers”? How many? What, exactly, did these nameless people “say” and why did they get to “say” it in the Times without being named (usually readers get some explanation, however lame)? Would any agenda-free Clinton “adviser” truly tell a reporter that Clinton is most troubled not by any potential wrongdoing here but by the potential political fallout—essentially, that Mrs. Clinton is, just as her detractors like to tell it, all politics and no principle? Maybe Healey intentionally uses “advisers” rather than “Clinton advisers” here because he is including in that description people who advise opposing campaigns? Readers will never know.

Further along in the piece we learn from “a senior Democratic strategist who advises Mrs. Clinton’s campaign” and who “spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign deliberations” (in other words, “to dish/vent/unload”), “that the Clinton campaign was deeply worried that the controversy could grow,” before helping the “controversy grow” by tossing this bit of bait out there: “The feeling is there are a few more [Clinton bundlers] that will have Hsu problems.” (Hurry! Scrutinize them all!)

“Advisers” and “strategists” aren’t the only anonymice allowed to sound off in Healey’s piece. “One of Mrs. Clinton’s major fund-raisers” offered the following tidbit (without thinking, perhaps, of how it might reflect upon “one of Mrs. Clinton’s major fund-raisers” him- or herself): “People have often said about the Clintons, they don’t care who they hang out with as long as the people can be helpful to them.” (In other words, “The Clintons will be seen with any old riff-raff—even me!”)

This is just one example — among, no doubt, many others today alone — of a reporter having offered anonymity to sources with the result offering little to readers. Fall is here, and the campaigns are taking on a sense of heightened urgency. As the primary season moves ever closer, there will be no shortage of people eager to pop off about any of the candidates when promised anonymity. Now would be a good time for news organizations to revisit their internal guidelines on when to grant it. (Hint: the answer is not whenever it’s convenient.)

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.