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Media, government lose credibility because of anonymous sources

WASHINGTON—Newsweek's admission this week that its (literally) explosive report was wrong about Americans desecrating a Quran raises again the issue of anonymous sources.

At least 17 people died in riots in Afghanistan, and Pakistan shook from massive street protests, all touched off by the story based on an assertion by an unidentified U.S. government official who has since told Newsweek he couldn't be sure of his information.

The magazine apologized and retracted at a time when most mainstream news media are struggling with how—even whether—to use anonymous sources. USA Today founder Al Neuharth favors an outright ban. Few others agree, but many news organizations, including Knight Ridder's Washington Bureau, are writing restrictive new policies designed to minimize use of anonymous sources, to describe them and their motives as fully as possible, and to set standards for verifying their information.

Anonymous sources are like atomic energy—beneficial when handled carefully for proper public purposes, such as exposing government wrongdoing, but dangerous when used without safeguards. An anonymous source, the so-called Deep Throat, helped The Washington Post uncover the Watergate abuses that eventually brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. But anonymous sources that didn't exist forced the same newspaper to give back a Pulitzer Prize in 1981, when a sensational account of an 8-year-old heroin addict turned out to be fiction.

Knight Ridder Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott and reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel relied extensively on anonymous sources in reporting more than 60 stories, starting in September 2002, on the Bush administration's misuse of intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq and its failure to plan adequately for the aftermath of war.

When most news media gave credence to the administration's allegations about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaida, Walcott, Landay and Strobel reported that military and intelligence professionals had no new information indicating that Saddam was a stronger threat to the United States. They later wrote that, because the administration expected Iraqis to welcome invading U.S. forces with open arms, the Pentagon did no serious postwar planning, opening the way for the insurgency that still pins down 140,000 U.S. troops.

Although they relied heavily on unnamed sources, the stories proved true: There was no Iraqi nuclear program. There were no operational links between Saddam and al-Qaida. The administration was relying on unreliable sources of information. Three subsequent U.S. government investigations agreed.

In these politically polarized times, anonymous sources are particularly infuriating to readers who don't like stories that don't support their political views. Because a conservative Republican administration and Congress are in power—and because journalists are inherently skeptical of power—much of the anger toward the use of anonymous sources these days is coming from the right. When anonymous sources were leaking the details of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, it was Democrats who were decrying the leaks. Remember the "vast right-wing conspiracy"?

Despite high-profile media disasters such as the Newsweek story, the biggest abuser of anonymous sources is the government itself—all those "senior officials" who praise the boss and his policies anonymously leak trial balloons they can later deny and drop damaging information to get even with enemies. Until Newsweek stumbled, the highest-profile case involving anonymous sources lately was the leak by unidentified "senior administration officials" to conservative columnist Robert Novak that revealed an undercover CIA officer's name. Her husband had exposed as false a key piece of evidence the president had used in his case for war. The White House apparently was trying to discredit a critic and get revenge.

Anonymity reached an absurd low when three top administration officials recently briefed reporters on an forthcoming speech by the president on energy policy. Not only were reporters not permitted to identify the officials, they weren't even told who the officials were. Knight Ridder and other news organizations chose not to write the story.

Several days later, a small group of Washington journalists, including me and Knight Ridder White House correspondent Ron Hutcheson, who is president of the White House Correspondents' Association, met with White House press secretary Scott McClellan to urge that all administration briefings be put on the record. We argued that the credibility of the White House and the press corps alike was being undermined by overuse of anonymity.

McClellan said he'd agree immediately to a ban on the use of anonymous sources by both the administration and the media. But even if he tried, he'd never be able to enforce it in the White House, where his own boss meets on background with journalists.

Despite that ploy, McClellan also listened carefully and responded. On the president's recent trip to Russia and Eastern Europe, White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley gave reporters a rare on-the-record briefing.

Knight Ridder and other news organizations, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, Cox Newspapers, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today agreed after the McClellan meeting to demand that every background briefing be put on the record and, if it isn't, to demand an on-the-record explanation.

McClellan said Tuesday, "I think that we should move away from the use of—the long-used practice of the background briefings, and we've taken steps to do that."

It's a small step, but a start.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Clark Hoyt is Washington editor for Knight Ridder. Readers may write to him at: Knight Ridder, 700 12th Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005, or via e-mail at choyt@krwashington.com.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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