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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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Thursday, May 06, 2004

WaPo's anonymous source farce should outlast The Mousetrap

Re-reading that abject document The Washington Post's Policies on Sources, Quotations, Attribution, and Datelines, one can hardly with any justice feel misled that it was proclaiming a Brave New World of journalistic glasnost.

It is timid verging on cringing. In every line, it betrays the leonine nature of the relation between the paper and its most important sources.

As, for instance,
When sources refuse to be identified, it is often helpful to show readers that we tried to identify them, and explain why we could not. We should write, for example, that a source "spoke only on the condition that he or she not be named," rather than saying that a source "asked not to be identified."

A nice angels on the end of a pin distinction to delight the Schoolmen. A shard of gallows humour, perhaps?

The Seven Stone Weakling adds, ineffectually,
Merely asking should not be sufficient to become anonymous in our stories.

Some sources, of course, will not even need to ask.

Spokespersons, by virtue of their role and title, should be on the record when they are giving briefings or calling us with information. When they decline to be quoted by name in such situations, we should protest, ask for a publishable explanation as to why, and tell readers what happened, if appropriate.

How many times has it proved appropriate, one wonders?

The iron rule of anonymous sourcing, as I've mentioned before [1], is
The hornier we are for the story, the more slack we'll cut the source.

Coming right up to date, we have the Post today on Rumsfeld's dressing-down by Bush over the Abu Ghraib business. The anonymice infestation seems unabated.

In the lede, we're introduced to
a senior White House official
other U.S. officials

In Graf 3, we're told of the SWHO that he
refused to be named so he could speak more candidly.

So far as I can see, the SWHO was speaking entirely on behalf of the President. There is no hint of dissidence, still less being off the reservation to justify him - it is a him [2].

In Graf 4, there is another reference to
Other U.S. officials

Are these the same officials as those referred to in Graf 1? The Graf 4 officials are said to be
speaking on the condition of anonymity.

No further explanation given.

In Graf 5, we have
a senior State Department official familiar with the discussions.

Again, I infer from the context that the SSDO is speaking solely on behalf of Powell.

In Graf 6, we have an appearance from
U.S. officials

Are these the Graf 4 officials or some new group? (They are beating on the Pentagon - clue?) No attempt is made to explain the anonymity of the Graf 6 officials.

In Graf 7, we have
Defense officials
taking the opposite line. Again, no explanation or excuse of anonymity.

In Graf 7, we have an example of secondary anonymity. These defense officials say (reported speech - emphasis mine):
there were no major differences between the departments of State and Defense over the handling of detainees in Iraq, saying top administration officials had generally agreed on the need to reduce the number of prisoners in U.S. military custody and ensure proper management of detention facilities.

Big fleas have lesser fleas...

Then - lo and behold! - in Graf 8
Lawrence T. DiRita, the Pentagon's chief spokesman.

How did that happen? Did the Post spend hours Mutt-and-Jeff-ing him?

Graf 9 sees business as usual:
some White House officials
Some Republican aides on Capitol Hill
make an appearance. No comment on reasons for anonymity. Joseph Biden goes on the record.

Grafs 10 and 11 are reported speech of Rumsfeld, and background.

Graf 12 gives us
State Department officials
- again, no note on the reason for anonymity, or whether the Graf 5 official is included.

Graf 13 brings
a U.S. official familiar with the legal issues involved in detentions
- no reason for anonymity, though.

And Graf 14
U.S. officials here and former Coalition Provisional Authority officials
- ditto.

The SWHO reappears in Graf 16

In Graf 18 we get
Bush aides

By Graf 19, the hacks - like me - are on the point of giving up: we just get
officials said.

In Graf 20,
U.S. officials said.
As opposed to Uzbekistani, perhaps.

Grafs 21 and 22 each have a reference to
U.S. officials
- but not necessarily the same ones!

But the final Graf 23 uses the definite article -
the officials said.
- implying that the Graf 22 and 23 officials are the same folks - but not necessarily the Graf 21 guys.


Then, by Uncle Leonard Downie and the boys it's

Mission Accomplished

  1. March 9 and April 15.

  2. What is the protocol for female anonymice? Presumably, there are a good deal fewer females than males. Is their gender obscured, or are all such treated as male, the better to hide their identity?

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