Monday, March 12, 2007

I'm So Sick of Anonymous Sources

It used to be that anonymous sources were used rarely and gave people the opportunity to reveal secret information about abuse, often government abuse, when they otherwise couldn't. Now? They're used to trick the public into wars and give politicians the opportunity to launch personal attacks without any worry about the consequences.

Today's Globe and Herald stories on Deval Patrick adjusting his position to give himself more personal time to help his wife both feature anonymous sources. Why? Seriously, what were these people talking about that was so earth-shattering that they couldn't go on the record? I wasn't going to bring this issue up after reading Lisa Wangsness's article because, on the whole, it was fair. Yet, to be honest, this part did bother me:

"The most important part of a new administration is the first six to nine months," said an aide to a former Massachusetts governor.

"You want people to develop a positive view of the administration," said the former aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Right now, they have a negative view."

The former aide said people would probably feel sympathy for Patrick, but even so, if Diane Patrick's condition is serious, "then it's going to be a distraction for him at a very bad time."

I'm sure that a former aide of a Republican administration was only too keen to provide Ms. Wangsness with a few quotes. However, I ask the following question: were those statements so crucial to the story that including them were more important than insisting on divulging the source? None of it was terribly poignant. Ms. Wangsness couldn't even get the aide to allow her to divulge either the aide's level within the administration or even what administration the source was in. Surely neither information would have revealed the former aide's identity, yet would have given readers more information to determine whether the quotes came from someone who had a personal agenda.

Again, the article wasn't bad and I wasn't going to bring it up - until I read the Herald's report. Does the Herald even bother asking people to get on record anymore? They bring up two "sources" to smear the Governor, one on a largely unrelated issue. Let's take a peak:
A source close to Patrick’s administration told the Herald his early missteps have been a nagging source of frustration for even die-hard supporters.... Like Republican Gov. Mitt Romney before him, the source said Patrick is fast learning the pitfalls of being a political outsider on Beacon Hill.... “These business people who think they can run government like a business, it just doesn’t work,” the source said. “The things you can get away with in a private business aren’t allowed in government and people are watching your every move.”

A second source said Patrick’s admission that he made a call on behalf of his controversial former employer, Ameriquest Mortgage, was the “zenith” of his freshman stumblings that have left many questioning just who he’s taking advice from - if anyone.

Now, why those attacks need to be featured in a story about Deval Patrick's wife needing his help and support, I don't know. It doesn't really have to do with the story, but the media thinks these kinds of things sell stories (despite evidence to the contrary: their declining numbers). I find it ironic that the media won't report on certain topics, when it was all too willing to call anonymous sources for quotes about an issue that was extremely personal. For example, the fact that former Congressman Mark Foley was gay wasn't a big secret in the media; they just protected his privacy until bloggers dug up the truth about both Foley and his unscrupulous practices. Imagine the media calling up anonymous sources before the bloggers broke the story? I can't.

The points that these anonymous sources brought up would have been more relevant if they weren't anonymous. None of the insider perspective the articles provided was so important that it warranted the protection of anonymity. Since it's rather likely these attacks are coming from Beacon Hill insiders, I ask the following question: do we really need to give politicians a soap box and a mask? I have no problem with them going out on the attack and making critical points, but by the gods of Kobol, if they don't have the gumption to do it publicly then just don't print it.

Anonymous sources and the journalists who protect them were complicit in getting this country to go into Iraq. They have contributed to the decline of journalism. It's become a norm to have anonymous sources - so much so that we see them in articles, like today's batch, that certainly don't require anonymity to report the story. While anonymous sources can be very important, newspapers need to learn how to use them sparingly - which will not only improve the journalistic integrity of a newspaper, but will end up in those anonymous sources actually meaning something when they're used.

Update: David beat me to the story and brings up the point that the NY Times - the Globe's parent company - changed its policy on granting anonymity after the Judy Miller fiasco. The Globe certainly didn't follow those new guidelines in this story.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it was someone from the Dukakis era.

Ryan Adams said...

It could have been, but the chances of that are remote. Numerically, a good deal less than 20% - and that's without considering the tone and the fact that Lisa Wangsness probably doesn't have a whole bunch of sources from an administration that was mainly around in the 80s. She's pretty young.

Anonymous said...

As I wrote over at BMG, sources are rarely if ever anonymous. They might not be identified in the printed news stories, but they are known to the reporters.

Let's understand something, the problem is the credibility of the reporters, not the anonymity of the sources.


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