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It was an impressive piece, borne out today by word that Raimondo had withdrawn under pressure from Democrats and skittish officials.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.)