Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jumping At Shadows

Once again, a finely sourced article foreshadowing doom and disaster turns out to be a dud. On October 23, 2009, Brian Buetler at Talking Points Memo posted "Sources: White House Pushing Back Against Senate Public Option Opt Out Compromise," which began with this promising line:
Multiple sources tell TPMDC that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is very close to rounding up 60 members in support of a public option with an opt out clause, and are continuing to push skeptical members. But they also say that the White House is pushing back against the idea, in a bid to retain the support of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME).

"They're skeptical of opt out and are generally deferential to the Snowe strategy that involves the trigger," said one source close to negotiations between the Senate and the White House. "they're certainly not calming moderates' concerns on opt out."
These observations, no doubt furtively whispered on pain of death in some dripping cavern under the city sewage works into the ear of our intrepid reporter, set off a rash of breathless and increasingly frantic denunciations of the White House by commenters at TPM as well as some verbal knife-wielding between those who were tarred as apologists for the Administration and those who were berated for never having anything positive to say about them. At other blogs where it was repeated without question, the response was also predictably breathless, as well. Discussions about the ethicality of such promiscuous use of un-named sources was birthed in those comments as well, but died an ugly death beneath the flurry of ad hominim attacks that have become the lifeblood of internet dialogue.

What a shame. Once, the use of un-named sources was careful and cautious, and done to protect informants from serious harm, even death. Sources were required to be verifiable prior to their publication, and often, as in the case of Deep Throat, provided information used to verify other sources of evidence of illegal activities. Use of these kinds of sources were a matter of serious debate within the newsroom, because a reporter put him- or herself on the line if it came down to protecting them. As with uncooperative witnesses, there is no time limit to the amount of jail time one may serve for refusing to identify an un-named source. They damned well better be 1) verifiable, and 2) worth it. Here is the current Confidential News Source Policy of the New York Times (in part):
In routine interviewing – that is, most of the interviewing we do – anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source. Exceptions will occur in the reporting of highly sensitive stories, when it is we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us. Similarly they will occur in approaches to authoritative officials in government who, as a matter of policy, do not speak for attribution.

In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.

We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is.

We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack.
That last one definitely slipped past Bob Novak. The problem isn't new. As early as 1994, The American Journalism Review was writing that:
"Part of the problem is that reporters and sources have become so comfortable with the arrangement here," says Edward Pound, an investigative reporter for U.S. News & World Report who has worked in Washington for 17 years. "If you call somebody at the White House or in an agency, they almost expect to be anonymous and they frequently won't talk unless they are."...

At the White House, on-the-record sources are rare.

Karen Hosler of Baltimore's Sun covered the White House for five years, serving a term as president of the White House Correspondents Association. Hosler didn't like White House officials' insistence on briefing reporters without allowing their names to be used, but says she was powerless to change the situation.

"For reporters, it's difficult to unilaterally say you won't take advantage of the information," she adds. "A stand on principle just costs the story... The White House is the worst and most difficult place to report about. We as a press corps could change things if we as a group did something. But it's much too competitive and cutthroat to do that."
Imagine a world in which no one went on the record? How soon would the standard for truth go out the window, when accountability could no longer be verified? Even now it seems we're on that road, and people are ready to jump at shadows on the basis of any damned vaporous allegation they get a whiff of. Step back a minute when you hear those words "Sources say..", and ask yourself whether it feels credible, and who could benefit from the story if it isn't. We now live in an age where lies, hoaxes, and bullshit pour into our ears and off our monitors like the blood tides in the hall of Kubrick's Overlook Hotel, and it's time to get a grip and start filtering this muck. Even attributable quotes often turn out to be not worth the snot left on a Kleenex. How much more worthless might be the words of those who cringe behind indiscriminate cloaks of obscurity?

Oh, and that story on the White House? Here is Buetler's update, as of this morning:
Late update: In response to this report, White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer issued the following statement. "The report is false. The White House continues to work with the Senate on the merging of the two bills. We are making good progress toward enacting comprehensive health reform."

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