The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes
Tuesday, March 09, 2004
Jack Shafer, Al Siegal and the anonymice
In the war for journalism's credibility, anonymous sources are the Russian Front.
And it's clearly a topic that has risen to the top of the agenda: the management of both the New York Times and Washington Post have issued memos dealing with the subject in the past weeks - available at Romenesko.
First up today is Al Siegal - he of the Siegal Committee that produced a report reviewing standards in Times journalism following the Jayson Blair débâcle.
On On the Media on March 5, he was quizzed on the subject. A front page piece in the Times on Aristide's last hours in Haiti by Christopher Marquis, in particular, which
was pretty much based exclusively on information provided by, quote, "a senior State Department official."
Siegal answered that
It was consistent with our policy, because it was necessary. At that time, there was only one account available to us. That account came from the government.
Reminds me a bit of Lyndon Johnson telling journos on the plane coming back from his trip to South Vietnam in 1961 that Ngo Dinh Diem was the only son of a bitch we got.
Siegal goes on to say:
...people in the business of diplomacy and international affairs and national security simply do not, as a matter of policy, speak for attribution.
[Of course they don't, when bozos like Siegal let them off the hook!]
Siegal denies that there's a double standard:
I would say that there's a kind of sliding scale.
Which translates to, The hornier we are for the story, the more slack we'll cut the source.
The guy - to whom I'm warming, so let's namecheck him: Brook Gladstone - pulls out the NYT memo:
According to the New York Times policy, and I'm quoting here, "When we use such sources (anonymous sources) we accept an obligation not only to convince the reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation. Do you think this was done in the Marquis story?
I don't think there was any particular motivation. I think that they were
Now, I don't think you need necessarily believe all that kidnapping stuff to believe that there is no time when the State Department does not have a particular motivation. (Except when it has several.)
He finishes his answer with another classic:
...I don't think it's necessary to assume that they're wrong because the government has on occasion been wrong.
I tend to think Gladstone is having trouble believing what he's hearing. He says himself that he's
hammering awayat the point. Siegal seems to be close to playing dumb:
Skepticism is always appropriate. Cynicism, in the absence of any basis for it, is not appropriate. I don't think that government spinning is a new phenomenon, and the reason for a policy of identifying your sources as fully as you can and describing them as completely as you can is to make clear to the reader that you don't know what the facts are - you just know what you've been told.
And this is the guy who is the paper's standards editor!
New masthead motto for the Times:
We don't know that facts: we only know what we've been told.
At least we know where we stand.
Shafer, meanwhile, is giving WaPo some attention (March 8), based on the article by Post editor Leonard Downie that I discussed at some length yesterday.
He's sarcastic: canvassing what would happen if WaPo refuse to play the game with the anonymice and they took their business elsewhere, he refers to the Massing NYROB piece (see piece next door):
Massing found that the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, which relied on "blue collar" sources to report the prewar WMD threat rather than high-level ones, captured a more accurate picture of Iraq's capabilities than did the New York Times' Judith Miller, who had numerous high sources feeding her.
He then suggests that the Wall Street Journal is much less dependent on such sources, and benefits in the robustness of its coverage of USG - and of business, too. (Since I've read virtually no WSJ news pieces, I really couldn't comment.)
To be sure, the Journal doesn't carry the Post's burden of having to be the newspaper of White House record, which makes it easy for it to ignore the minutia of presidential news.
Shafer launches Downie Watch. Will WaPo stick with it? Will Shafer?
Watch this space!
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