Secrets and Lies

More thoughts on ABC News's anthrax-sourcing scandal

As of yet, ABC News and Brian Ross have kept mum on the identities of their sources in 2001’s now-discredited stories about bentonite-tainted anthrax. Several people have made compelling arguments that the sources’ names should be revealed.

Dan Gillmor:

Would blowing the whistle on lying sources lead to fewer sources? It might. Sometimes people don’t know they’re lying, when higher-ups tell them to do the leaking with misinformation fed to the sources in the first place. But the over-reliance on unnamed sources stains the journalistic craft in any case, and situations like this one encourage the public to believe absolutely nothing that relies on such sources…

Jay Rosen:

Though I am a frequent critic of the practice, I am not against the use of confidential sources…. But the only way that system can work is when sources know: if you lie, or mislead the reporter into a false report… you will be exposed. People who believe strongly in the need for confidential sources should be strongly in favor of their exposure in clear cases of abuse, because that is the only way a practice like this has a prayer of retaining its legitimacy.

Here’s my thought. The best investigative journalism is devoted to transparency—the pursuit of stories and information that those in power would rather keep hidden. Anonymity is a vital weapon for transparency’s champions. Without it, there would have been no Watergate, no Pentagon Papers, no warrantless wiretapping story. By going anonymous, people in sensitive positions can transmit sensitive information without risking retribution from their extremely sensitive superiors. Sometimes, transparency requires a measure of opacity.

But when sources use their anonymity maliciously—when they use their privilege to cloud rather than enlighten—they retard the pursuit of transparency. Deliberate misinformation is ruinous to the aims of investigative journalism. Remember the George W. Bush National Guard story from 2004? Dan Rather may well have been on to something, but the fact that he was duped by a fake document killed any chance that story ever had of gaining traction. Anonymity is a weapon, yes. But as soon as it’s misused, it becomes a land mine.

At that point, I think, journalists are released from their obligation to protect their source’s identity. In the bentonite case, it’s hard to argue that ABC News’s sources still deserve any sort of residual loyalty. There remains, of course, the possibility that Ross’s sources acted in good faith—which is, I think, one of the reasons why ABC News has kept silent on this matter. It seems wrong to out the sources if they were just mistaken. But, devil’s advocate, say the sources were just mistaken, and say they were outed all the same. Would this prevent sources from coming forward in the future? Or would it just prevent sources from coming forward with anything but bulletproof, absolutely verifiable information?

That said, my sense of fair play tells me that a mistaken-not-malicious source shouldn’t be outed. Scorned, yes; never used again, yes. But not outed. Brian Ross has claimed that his four independent sources were government scientists, not political flacks, which would seem to somewhat deflate the idea that the leaks were the result of a concerted misinformation campaign. But should you believe Brian Ross? Blogger Larisa Alexandrovna:

But to have four sources who are a). all experts in Anthrax, b). working in a field with only roughly 50-100 people in it, c). who all have access to a domestic terrorism investigation, d). who all made the same exact mistake, e). on something so specific, and f). and all chose Ross as the conduit is not possible.

I wish I knew what ABC News was going to do here. It’d make things a lot more simple if they’d just tell us.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.