Election Over, Anonymice Scamper Back Onto Page One

Nine months ago, the New York Times reaffirmed its commitment to cutting down on anonymous sourcing. All election season long, Campaign Desk did its best to encourage the extermination of “anonymice” that continued to crawl all over the pages of the Times (and the pages of several of the Times’ peers). Two weeks ago, Adam Nagourney, the Times’ chief national political reporter, assured Campaign Desk that “there’s been a drop in the use of anonymous sources” at his newspaper. (Indeed, in the final weeks of the election campaign, it did seem as if anonymice suffered a brief drop in population.) And just this week, according to Slate’s Jack Shafer, Times reporters received an email from assistant managing editor Allan M. Siegel titled “Re-examining our credibility” in which Siegel asked: “Can we .. .squeeze more anonymous sources out of our pages? Can we make our attributions (even the anonymous ones) less murky? Are there some stories we can afford to skip if they are not attributable to people with names?”

The short-term answer, apparently, is no. For this morning, Times readers are treated to a rather tortured piece by Elisabeth Bumiller and Neil A. Lewis — on the possible meanings of President Bush appointing Alberto R. Gonzales to the post of Attorney General — which contains not a single named source.

Instead, readers are asked to rely on the say-so of, variously, “one Republican,” “conservatives,” “several Republicans,” and “two officials.” One need only re-read the Times’ own nine-month-old memo to understand why this is a disservice to readers: “When we agree to anonymity, the reporter’s duty is to obtain terms that conceal as little as possible of what the reader needs to gauge reliability … Trail markers should be as detailed as possible.” Oh, also: “The word ‘official’ is overused, and cries out for greater specificity.”

Bumiller and Lewis do, in fact, get a bit more specific here and there. Perhaps some readers feel more confident in the words of “Republicans close to the White House,” “one Republican familiar with White House operations,” or “Republicans outside the administration as well as White House officials.”

Alas, this time readers are not even offered inventive explanations for why these “Republicans,” “conservatives” and “officials” are so shy to go on record discussing such a tame topic. Where are the Bumillerisms of yesteryear, such as, “because [a source] did not want to be pestered by reporters” not named Bumiller, or “because White House aides get angry when people talk about their closeness to the president,” two gems employed last spring to explain Bumiller’s reliance on anonymice?

We realize that Bumiller and Lewis are no doubt suffering from the same battle fatigue faced by all election reporters. But count us among those already nostalgic for all of those “who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears Karl Rove’s wrath,” or “who did not want his name used because he has no intention of getting transferred to the Alaskan office of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.