The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, March 08, 2004

WaPo Guidelines: the Editor speaks!

Rarely does the Executive Editor of the Washington Post - since 1991, Leonard Downie - offer a bylined piece. When he does, as yesterday, it deserves our attention.

His focus is the extensive guidelines recently laid down by WaPo editors on the acceptable use of sources in the paper [1].

Downie does not make a good start:
A succession of well-publicized missteps by the news media in recent years -- from misrepresentation of facts and questionable reporting methods to outright fabrication and plagiarism...

Missteps implies that these things occurred by unfortunate accidents, for which the media cannot be held to blame; well-publicized suggests over-hyped.

Both carefully chosen expressions, no doubt, each suggestive of spin.

The next few grafs are unexceptionable, describing the pressures news organisations are under these days, and the way the guidelines are being handled internally.

Then we get to the meat: anonymous sources. No one could quarrel with Downie's intentions:
We want to make as clear as possible to our readers where the information that we report is coming from, so they can judge it for themselves.

And he states what seems undeniable, that
Many people and institutions we cover try to avoid being identified as the sources of information in our stories. For example, it is standard practice in Washington and elsewhere for government officials to talk to reporters only "on background"...

And then refers to the special briefing - discussed in my March 3 piece - given by Bush to five selected network correspondents [2].

He states his preference clearly:
...we are reminding our reporters to try to put government officials and other sources of information "on the record" by name whenever possible, even if it means objecting to traditional Washington practices such as "background briefings."

Again, no one would quarrel with that.

The really meretricious passage follows.

He says that
some sources who have significant information -- often information needed to hold powerful people and institutions accountable for their actions -- would be risking their jobs or even their safety if they were identified.

Whistleblowers need protection: got it.

Then, names are shamelessly dropped:
If Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had been required to name all their sources in their Watergate stories, for example, they would not have been able to report much of that scandal.

Fine: information that brought down a President not forthcoming on a named basis.

He sidles into a murkier area altogether:
the culture of anonymity in dealings with the news media has proliferated...Reporters and editors working together must weigh the costs and benefits to differentiate between those sources who truly need anonymity and those who are using it as a cover for their agendas.

Clearly, here we're not talking about whistleblowers at all. State Department officials stating State Department policy are hardly
risking their jobs or even their safety

Yet, having made the differentiation, what are hacks supposed to do?
we will try to explain to readers why a source is not being named.

They roll over.

The Bush briefing was an exercise as much in disciplining the media as in promoting Administration messages. It told the media, loud and clear: we can cut you in, or cut you out, as we please. Go along, or find another game.

And - notably - Bush and his people did it, not by having private words with senior editors, but in the public gaze.

Whether the briefing was in any way motivated by the fear that USG's anonymous leaking privileges might be under threat, I know not. It did handily demonstrate the moral hazard under which the media work.

(I mentioned (February 29) New York Times ombud Daniel Okrent's view on the matter:
imagining a modern newspaper without unattributed quotes is like imagining the Arctic without ice.

Downie seems to take a similar view of the matter.)

Could the senior media players form a cartel against the noxious practice of anonymous official briefing? Even if they could, could they make it stick?

The honest answer is No to both questions, I think. Bush has already railed against the Filter: there are, I suspect, plenty of local news organisations who would be happy to scoop their more illustrious brethren under any conditions USG would care to name [3].

Apart from his opening graf, Downie's is not a bad stab at defending the indefensible. He's showing his intentions are honourable; it's just that - in the crucial area of government, in particular - they are incapable of realisation.

And - to be fair - he exposes himself less by the approach he takes than by jumping straight to the reality: that USG has its foot on his neck, and can usually dictate to a large extent the way in which it's covered in the media, which obviously affects the substance of the coverage it gets.

Clearly, to judge the effectiveness of the guidelines, what is required is, amongst other things, some before and after quantitative analysis of the use by WaPo of anonymous sources in government, both the executive and legislative branches. My guess is that, while descriptions of sources might get a bit fuller, the number of such quotes will not be reduced under the new regime.

Even if anonymous sourcing is here to stay, more could be done: hacks could parse the comments of government spokesmen, anonymous or not, right after the comments are quoted. Tendentious or spurious statements could be nailed down, with sidebars, if necessary. Statements of pols could be denied ipso facto credibility: indeed, they should be assumed to be a distortion of the facts pending proof to the contrary!

In short, the delusion of objective journalism should be abandoned.

The problem of anonymous sources would not be so great if the general attitude of the main media players towards pols did not generally appear to be so accommodating [4]. If it felt as if WaPo and the other big players were always pushing the envelope, doing as much as possible whilst still retaining USG sources, that would be something.

Ultimately, of course, every man is his own fact-checker. The fact that Downie puts anonymous USG bollocks in his paper is no excuse for the rest of us to treat it as gospel.

One might say he offers us the chance for some useful mental exercise: get in the routine of quarantining anonymous quotes - denying them the status that words on a WaPo page might ordinarily have [5] - until the agenda with which they are infected can be identified.

(How's that for accentuating the positive!)

It's certainly clear from Downie's piece that the assistance on offer from the Post on the matter will be limited.

(It's noteworthy that he does not address the ne plus ultra of anonymity abuses (my March 3 piece [1]): Bush being quoted as a
senior administration official

Apparently, only
network anchors and conservative columnists
have got this treatment to date. And that wouldn't include WaPo, presumably. But he might have identified it as the gross abuse it was. And not left us wondering quite what he thinks about it.)

  1. Mentioned in my piece of March 3. Available on the Poynter site.

  2. Despite the fact that the briefing was on deep background, Downie quotes NBC's David Gregory as saying
    The president has told people he believes tonight's Super Tuesday results mark the real beginning of the general election...
    Some definition of deep background I'm not familiar with?

  3. Did any of the correspondents invited to the Bush briefing hesitate for a single second about scooping their print colleagues? Answers on a postcard...

  4. A view much canvassed here, of course: recently, on March 2, for instance.

  5. There is a clear difference between the snafu through negligence - from memory, the Post told its readers that DC parking was free on one day during the Christmas break when in fact it wasn't! - and government disinformation.

    I believe there is quite an academic literature on the subject of the illusion of veracity created by the printed page; in the same stable as a photo cannot lie - which they've been doing since they were daguerreotypes, of course!

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