The Journal’s Many Anonymice

And why Jack Shafer needs a better mousetrap

Our crony in criticism, Slate’s Jack Shafer, stumbles this morning in an otherwise interesting discussion about which major media outlets most often and most egregiously use anonymous sources to support stories.

He praises The Wall Street Journal as “the most reluctant” to use anonymice; actually, my old paper is probably the least reluctant, by a long shot.

The problem is that Shafer’s method of identifying offending stories by searching for the actual word “anonymous” and “anonymity” doesn’t count the Journal’s favorite way to identify the Source with No Name—”people familiar,” or (even worse) a “person familiar”… with the situation, with the matter, with the person’s thinking.

And while Shafer admits his method is crude, and that’s fine, the result it produces in the WSJ’s case is pretty much upside down.

Shafer’s study doesn’t specify the time period he studies [Audit correction: actually, he did—about two weeks before the post] or tally up the total of times anonymice are allowed into the papers. But his worst offender seems to be The Los Angeles Times, which is caught a couple dozen times or so in a couple of weeks.

The Journal uses anonymous sources a dozen times just today and about 2,700 in the past year, according to a Factiva search. These are all from this morning:

“You’re not going to like this conversation,” Mr. Fuld told Mr. Blankfein, according to people familiar with their talk, but he was hearing “a lot of noise” about Goldman traders who allegedly spread negative rumors about Lehman. (1)
However, a person familiar with the situation said that IBM hadn’t planned to close the plant.(2)
According to a person familiar with the situation, Hamilton officials were concerned that NASA didn’t properly evaluate the company’s projected costs for the program, among other objections.(3)
The estimated cost represents the difference between the securities’ face value and their current market value, according to people familiar with the plan. (4)

I differ with Shafer on the awfulness of anonymous sources—they’re basically fine with me most of the time, within reason, and using common sense about not allowing interested parties to blowdart enemies from the blinds in news pages, without a good reason.

Also, I think it’s a business-press thing. It’s basically impossible to get anything in the paper without agreeing to sourcing conditions that would curl the hair of most journalism school deans. And deal stories? Forget it.

It’s not a great situation, I agree, and the rules should probably be tightened. And while my impression is that its use is usually okay, a Shafer-esque study of the Journal and the business press is probably in order.

But whatever you think about anonymous sources, to say the WSJ is reluctant to use them is wrong. Quite the opposite is true.

1. “Goldman Is Queried About Bear’s Fall —- Manipulation Talk Worried Schwartz; Lehman Also Calls”; By Kate Kelly and Susanne Craig

2. “IBM to Put $1 Billion in Chip Plant”;
By William M. Bulkeley

3. “Corporate News: Hamilton Files Protest on NASA Spacesuit Decision”;
By J. Lynn Lunsford

4. “UBS to Buy Back up to $3.5 Billion in Securities”;
By Randall Smith, Kara Scannell and Liz Rappaport

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.