Revenge of the Anonymous

By Brian Montopoli

In press circles, there’s been much buzz of late about ambitious new rules on anonymous sourcing put forth recently by both the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Reporters and sources alike have been on the watch for how the new policies might change the way the Post and Times actually report the news. This week they got an indication.

In yesterday’s Post, Mike Allen and Jonathan Weisman reported on rumblings that President Bush’s choice for a prominent Commerce Department post, Anthony F. Raimondo, was a nightmare candidate for the job: In 2002, Allen and Weisman reported, Raimondo laid off 75 U.S. workers, four months after announcing he planned to open a factory in China.

It was an impressive piece, borne out today by word that Raimondo had withdrawn under pressure from Democrats and skittish officials. But it was also, as one alert reader e-mailed to point out, almost completely anonymously sourced.

Like many close newspaper readers, we’re still trying to get our heads around those new rules at the Post, Times, Boston Globe, and other papers that, as we summarized Wednesday, urge staff to “encourage sources to go on-the-record; object to ‘background briefings’; provide corroborating information to support off-the-record sources wherever possible; and give readers as much information as possible about off-the-record sources.”

Allen and Weisman’s piece, which relied on “several officials,” “a senior administration official,” “three senior administration officials,” and “an aide close to Bush,” seemed to violate the Post’s new policy on anonymous sources in about three different ways.

So we called Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., who authored the memo outlining the change to staffers, to ask if the piece was up to snuff.

“Absolutely,” said Downie. “People need to protect their jobs — and what people were telling our reporters is not what the White House spinmeisters wanted to put out. That story explained right in the middle why the source had to be anonymous. When we can’t identify a source, and information is important to our readers, we’re going to use anonymous sources and do our best to explain to our readers why we did. People shouldn’t interpret our policy to say that we’re never going to print things that aren’t on the record, because that’s impossible.”

The only explanation Campaign Desk could find “right in the middle” (or anywhere else) in the piece for the use of anonymous sources was that a senior administration official “refused to be named because Raimondo has not been nominated.” No reasons were given for the anonymity of the other sources, though presumably they were similar.

At the Times as well, the attempt to follow the more stringent policy has come under the microscope. On National Public Radio’s “On The Media” this week, Brooke Gladstone questioned Allan M. Siegal, the Times assistant managing editor and standards editor, about a Christopher Marquis-penned front-page story concerning the fall of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Marquis’ story, which described Aristide’s final hours in Haiti, relied largely on information from “a senior State Department official.” The South African ambassador to the United Nations, among others, subsequently disputed the account. Here’s part of the exchange, beginning with Siegel’s defense of the story:

Siegal: It was consistent with our [new] policy, because it was necessary. At that time, there was only one account available to us. That account came from the government. And people in the business of diplomacy and international affairs and national security simply do not, as a matter of policy, speak for attribution. If you want to know what the State Department thinks or what the State Department says, you have to be prepared to withhold the names of the people you speak to.

Gladstone: So would you say then that there are in effect two sourcing policies, one that simply has to apply to certain agencies of the federal government and one that applies to everyone else?

Siegal: I wouldn’t say that there are two. I would say that there’s a kind of sliding scale. The more important the information is, the more tolerant we have to be about the inability to put names on it … (Italics added.)

Siegal seems to be saying the new policy is more likely to be implemented when it comes to unimportant stories than more significant ones. The “sliding scale” qualification gets at the heart of just how difficult it’s going to be to enforce the crackdown on anonymity. All the good intentions in the world won’t necessarily stop sources from insisting on anonymity — and reporters live or die by sources. As Jack Shafer and others have pointed out, there are ample incentives for reporters in pursuit of a good story to give in to such demands — chief among them the pressure to scoop their peers. (As Paula Zahn told Jon Stewart last night on “The Daily Show,” “When there’s a breaking news story, someone breaks it a second or two before you, you think you’re not going to have a job the next morning.”)

We couldn’t help but think of this as we spoke to Post national news chief Liz Spayd, who talked to us about how well Post staffers grasp the new guidelines. “We’ve had a lot of staff meetings around the building about the new policy,” she said. “People want to make sure they understand the policy — and we’re working towards making that happen.” So, we asked, is it happening? Does everyone pretty much understand what they need to do?

“Reporters,” Spayd told us patiently, “are working towards playing with the same hand.”

Campaign Desk realizes that it’s never easy for a big institution like the Times or the Post to change the rules that the insiders operate by. For a long time, sources and reporters have played a game that mutually benefited each party to the equation — namely, sources and reporters.

The arrangement may have driven readers (and editors) half crazy — but it did get news into print that otherwise would not have surfaced, and, often enough, it played into career aspirations of both leakers and leakees.

If the Post’s Raimondo story or the Times’ Aristide story are reliable early indicators — and we think they are — it seems clear that those alliances of mutual benefit aren’t going to be so easy to dissolve.

And it seems just as clear that readers shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the next big story sourced by name and/or position. It could be a long wait.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.