Beating a Live Horse

Two stories on the New York Times’ front page today compel us to once again beat that undead horse, the anonymous source.

The Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller, for one, seems intent on ignoring assistant managing editor Allan M. Siegel’s week-old pleas for fewer anonymice. And, for her impudence, she is rewarded with page one placement. In the course of her story today about “Bush’s Tutor and Disciple,” Condoleezza Rice, Bumiller invokes the confidence-inspiring and oh-so-specific phrase “friends say” nine times. Among the very sensitive things that Bumiller could not get Rice’s “friends” to “say” on the record: “[Rice] was transformed by [the 9/11 attacks]”; “[Rice] is capable of great charm”; “Rice, a preacher’s daughter who grew up in segregated Birmingham, Ala., and was pushed by her parents into believing that anything in life is possible, has more than enough toughness and rigor for the job”; and “[Rice] has the discipline.” (We should note that Bumiller does get one Rice “friend” on the record, Coit Blacker — the same guy the Los Angeles Times quotes in their own Rice story today, which is itself full of anonymous sources such as “a close associate” and “a foreign policy specialist who had known Rice for 20 years.”)

When Bumiller isn’t quoting Rice’s faceless “friends,” she’s quoting or paraphrasing “officials” of one variety or another (another specific Siegel no-no). “Officials” are allowed to go unnamed in order to explain, for example, that “[Rice’s] views are not always predictable and that she sometimes challenges the president in certain circumstances.” (In other words, to knock down the CW that Rice is the president’s ever-welcome yes-woman).

Bumiller’s colleagues, David E. Sanger and Steven R. Weisman, also defy Seigel’s appeal to cut back on anonymous sourcing and deliver their own page one piece about Bush’s evolving Cabinet, also replete with anonymice. Sanger and Weisman present, among other nameless people/groups, the words of: “some officials who know Ms. Rice,” “an envoy who attended [a meeting in discussion],” “other envoys,” as well as those mysterious “some” who appear in the piece both “fear[ing] that an administration that seemed in a constant state of behind-the-scenes dissent may end up with out enough” and seeing Powell’s departure “as the moment for conservatives … to assume an even larger role.”

One of the two people quoted in Sanger and Weisman’s piece with a name affixed to his quote is Donald Rumsfeld. “So there is no end of speculation about whether Mr. Rumsfeld will have the kind of relationship with Ms. Rice that he had with Mr. Powell: one of constant bickering,” Sanger and Weisman write, neglecting to observe that the endless “speculation” is on the part of the reporters themselves — although in the next sentence, they concede: “Mr. Rumsfeld tried to tamp down that speculation on Tuesday, telling reporters traveling with him … that ‘long before this administration, [Rice and I] were friends.’”

The only other on-the-record quote Sanger and Weisman come up with is actually recycled — Lawrence Eagleburger speaking on CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now” two days ago.

It’s not easy being Allan Siegal.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.