New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt recently discussed the issue of anonymous sources used in news stories. He characterized the use of such sources as both “the lifeblood and bane of journalism.”
On the “lifeblood” side we have the Pentagon Papers and Watergate – two significant stories that quite possibly might not have seen the light of newsprint and network news were it not for anonymous sources.
Then there’s the “bane.”
Vice-President Dick Cheney’s Chief-of-Staff “Scooter” Libby leaking former CIA agent Valerie Plame to the media is the most recent and deliberate example.
“Readers hate anonymous sources,” Hoyt says, “because they cannot judge the sources’ credibility for themselves. How does a reader or viewer know if the ‘high-ranking official’ simply has an ax to grind or may even be the janitor or imaginary?”
In the case of Valerie Plame, Libby was acting from a specific, political agenda: he wanted to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (Plame’s husband) who wrote an Op-Ed criticizing the Bush administration’s run-up to the War in Iraq.
I bring all this up because of Todd Purdum’s recent Vanity Fair article about former President Bill Clinton’s “activities” on the campaign trail stumping for his wife Hillary.
According to anonymous “Clinton friends and former aides, concern about the company the boss keeps is persistent, palpable, and pained,” Purdum writes.
However, “In fairness,” Purdum writes that there is no direct“proof of post-presidential sexual indiscretions on Clinton’s part, despite a steady stream of tabloid speculation…”
So what, then is the purpose of a major cover story sharing anonymous opinions, speculations and assumptions?
Apparently, the whole exercise is to blow the lid off the fact that since leaving the White House “…the world of rich friends, adoring fans, and borrowed jets… has skewed [Clinton’s] judgment or, at a minimum, created uncomfortable appearances of impropriety.”
That’s it? That’s the big reveal?
Now, I realize that Vanity Fair is not exactly a fortress of objective, journalistic excellence. Its columnists frequently walk the tabloid beat. But those columns are not given over to a 9,000-plus word screed that liberally uses hearsay from, what appear to be, four anonymous sources.
No one denies the fact that for reporters to effectively report stories they must gain both access and confidence of key sources of information, who because of the nature of their positions, need to remain anonymous. However, since when do the activities of a former president merit the use of unnamed sources whose comments are a loose collection of insinuation and rumor.
This is by no means a defense of Clinton’s past or present activities. But the reality is, when writers like Purdum smear a former official by gossip and innuendo it lowers the bar for others.
Todd Purdum in particular and the news media in general need to take a closer look at how they gather information and set more rigorous standards as to the use of anonymous sources.
Among the questions reporters should consider:
- Does the public know the source of the information?
- If a source wants anonymity, why?
- Does the public know the motive of the source giving the information?
- Does the public know the context in which the information was obtained?
According to a 2006 survey by Zogby International on Honesty and Trust in America, “when it comes to confidence in the media that the reporting is accurate and fair… only 20% of those surveyed gave Cable news (CNN, FOX, MSNBC) ‘high’ marks, while 46% gave them ‘low’ marks. Newspapers and broadcast television (ABC, CBS, NBC) received only 25% ‘high’ marks.”
In such a highly charged and competitive marketplace, the media needs to be held to the same standards of transparency and accountability that they and the public expect of CEOs and public officials.
If they are to regain the public’s trust, reporters need to heed the centuries old wisdom that “Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion.”