Anonymous Assault

Campaign Desk has noted the press corps’ affinity for anonymous sources before. Too often reporters err by allowing political operatives to remain nameless while slandering their opponent, often with little or no substance to back up the charge. But in this week’s issue of Newsweek, Howard Fineman adds a wrinkle: He allows an unnamed source, described as “close to” John Kerry, to publicly question Kerry’s thinking on a crucial issue, with the clear intention of communicating a message to the senator.

Taking time out from an analysis of the Iraq war’s political implications for the president, Fineman writes:

Trying (but failing) not to seem overtly political, Kerry attacks what he regards as the administration’s incompetence — with its failure to heed warnings about Abu Ghraib the latest example. He pines for Sen. John McCain as a running mate. “It is a fantasy Kerry refuses to let go of,” a source close to him told Newsweek.

Fineman’s stretch to include his anonymous scoop in an unrelated paragraph is glaring. Apparently, he felt his quote was just too juicy to be left out of the story, awkward transition be damned.

More importantly, Fineman allows himself to be used by a Kerry backer who’s clearly trying to tell the candidate to get off the McCain kick.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Fineman shouldn’t run the quote — after all, if some Kerry aides think he’s wasting his time with McCain, that’s news. But Fineman might have framed the quote in a way that suggested to readers that his source had an ulterior motive for going public. For instance:

He pines for Sen. John McCain as a running mate. Some in the Kerry camp are concerned about the senator’s fixation on McCain, and, in an effort to dissuade Kerry from the idea, are publicly questioning it and speaking to reporters. For instance, one source close to Kerry told Newsweek, “It is a fantasy Kerry refuses to let go of.”

Sure, that’s a few words more than Fineman might have wanted to spend on what was, after all, a diversion from the main thrust of his piece. But by not making the source’s intentions explicit, Fineman lets himself be used as a tool of a political operator engaged in an internecine campaign conflict. That’s a dangerous place for a reporter to be.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.