The Knee Jerks and It Can’t Be Stopped

Remember the scene in Dr. Strangelove when mad scientist Peter Sellers has to keep grabbing his wrist to stop his right hand from reflexively shooting up into a “Heil Hitler!” salute?

Well, the practice of citing anonymous sources is just about that reflexive in Washington journalists. Lest you doubt that, here’s a segment from CNN’s “American Morning” today. Keep in mind that Barbara Starr, the CNN reporter, is recapping the controversy over Newsweek’s use of an unnamed source for its flawed report on treatment of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo:

Starr: Good morning to you, Soledad. Well, indeed, even with that retraction, the Bush administration wants Newsweek to explain how it got the story wrong. … After days of anger in the Muslim world and mounting political pressure from the Bush administration, Newsweek magazine retracted its story about desecration of the Koran at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A senior White House official called it “a good first step.” [Emphasis added]

But it wasn’t just “a senior White House official”; it was Scott McClellan, the presidential press secretary, and he was on the record — to Starr, to every other reporter present and to the world. There’s no need to cloak the outspoken McClellan in anonymity — most especially when you’re reporting on the trouble another reporter got into for relying on an anonymous source.


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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.