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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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Sunday, June 13, 2004

New York Times ombud: a forward policy on anonymous sources?

Background: Times ombud Daniel Okrent had his first big test earlier this year with the Peter Landesman sex slaves article The Girls Next Door. I thought he flunked it (February 29); but later (March 5) counselled that Okrent was most likely playing a long game - his contract runs out at the end of May 2005 - and was anxious to husband his resources.

Latterly, we've had a more aggressive piece from Okrent on the Judith Miller Iraqi WMD farrago (May 30) - which followed earlier pieces in which he resolutely refused to lift his grandfather of controversies originating before his arrival at the paper.

And in today's paper, one senses a story arc on the upward trajectory.

His target for tonight? Our old friend, anonymous sourcing.

[Sidebar on why anonymous sourcing is significant: Most of what happens in producing editorial for a newspaper is hidden from the reader. The choices that journos, copy-editors, and more senior editors [1]] make are not made explicit to readers. The use of anonymous sources is a proxy for integrity in the process.]

Okrent's hed [2] is
An Electrician From the Ukrainian Town of Lutsk

He explains that he
lifted it from reporter Richard Bernstein's identification of an otherwise anonymous man he interviewed for an article published in The Times on April 25.

It's a gag: a pleasant change from the putrid procession of USG anonymice that litter the pages of the Times.

Okrent mentions an NYU [3] student, Jason B Williams,
who was writing his master's thesis on unidentified sources in The Times...By reading every bylined A-section news story published in December 2003, Williams determined that 40 percent of the articles invoked at least one anonymous source, that the average day's paper brought 36 such sources into the reader's home and that more than half of these people were identified, at least in part, as "officials."

A number of US and other universities make their students' theses and dissertations available online: ETDs is the word. NYU does not seem to be among them, unfortunately.


Okrent notes the Times policy document on anonymous sources - he comments
it's a fascinating document [4] -
and says he asked Williams to re-do his study in April.

He then brings in Allan M Siegal, author of the well-known Report (PDF) on the Jayson Blair affair and the Times' Standards Editor:
his frequent spot checks have detected "clear improvement in the identification of sources to editors"
Siegal also said, "I don't mind conceding that habits die hard," which I regard as an explanation of why readers are still being asked to do what they should never have to: take things on faith. As the policy states, the use of unidentified sources requires the paper to "accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation."

For all this being early summer, there is a definite chill in the air!

From Okrent, who is not above the deliberately elusive formula, we get a blunt conclusion:
Williams's numbers (which show a slightly greater rate of anonymous quotation than his December study) and my own reading of the paper tell me this obligation has not been met. In April, barely 2 percent of stories citing anonymous sources revealed why The Times granted the request for anonymity. Only 8 percent of unidentified sources were described in a meaningful fashion.

I'm put in mind of the scene in Mr Smith Goes To Washington [5] where Jefferson Smith is called to meet the boss of his state; after being offered all sorts of goodies as the price for taking orders, the boss points out that Smith's hero, Senator Paine, had been taking his advice for years.

And Smith calls him a liar. Washington

Okrent gets down to why sources want to remain anonymous:
I doubt we'll ever see the paper cite what must be the most common one: deniability. If your name isn't attached to something that turns out to be wrong or embarrassing, you never have to take the heat for it.

And gives us an example:
Last Tuesday, in "Nine Iraqi Militias Are Said to Approve a Deal to Disband," by Dexter Filkins, one sentence began, "Two American officials, who spoke to a group of reporters on the condition of anonymity. " This was no whispered conversation in some Baghdad back alley; Filkins told me there were roughly 40 people in the room when the officials spoke. All of them, of course, knew very well who the officials were. Their editors did, too. And there's no question the officials' colleagues in the government knew as well. In other words, everyone knew - except the paper's readers.

Thus far Okrent and no further. The Times plays its readers for chumps - Okrent shrugs:
I can't find Filkins or his editors guilty for playing along with this dishonest practice; reporters must accept the rules to get the information.

As the great Irving Berlin once wrote
Everybody's Doing It

In support of his shrug, Okrent offers a historical vignette (emphasis mine [6]):
Times editors in fact tried to make an issue of such "background briefings" during the Clinton administration (Democrats are as adept as Republicans at this game). Andrew Rosenthal, the Washington editor at the time, instructed reporters to ask that everything be put on the record. When this request was invariably declined, the reporter was expected to ask why. The next part of the script had the reporter declare that The Times would therefore not participate in the briefing. "I dropped it after a while," Rosenthal told me last week, "because the rest of the press corps ridiculed our reporters." And because it just didn't do any good.

Solidarity forever. What if the Times agreed with the Washington Post? And ran the sleazoids' sleazing on A1 with names? If the will was there, there would be a way. (This is America, dammit!) It clearly isn't, so there won't be.

A bit unfair on Okrent. He say the Times
oughtn't have to wait for me to whine about it to let readers know how official Washington plays its cynical game. The paper may have to play by the rules, but that doesn't mean these rules can't be explained to readers.

There is, of course, a great reluctance on the part of all sorts of media - of fiction as well as (nominally) of fact - to explain process. It's supposed to be - the ultimate killer - boring. The Times readership, however, are not Joe Sixpacks, but a self-selected elite - around 1½ million dead-tree copies, same number of unique daily online visitors (memory!): they can take it!

Okrent renews his suggestion that anonymice be told that, if they lie, their anonymity will not be protected. And says
The easiest reform to institute would turn the use of unidentified sources into an exceptional event.

If achieved, that would be progress: but, having cited various trivial uses, Okrent doesn't seem to comprehend the addictive nature of anonymous sourcing. I think that the least significant instance of forgoing an anonymous sources would require tremendous dedication from journos and editors alike.

Ultimately, Okrent asks,
why quote anonymous sources at all?

Yes!!!The bleachers go wild!

On this subject, Okrent, like Arnie, promises to be back. Meanwhile, I'm keeping my sunny side up...

  1. I've no idea what the term is for an editor who is not a copy-editor.

  2. Bernstein's piece is now behind the pay-wall: this seems to be it.

  3. Blogging J-prof guru Jay Rosen's stamping-ground, of course.

  4. He does some actual reporting:
    As it happens, the most important part of the new policy involves something that cannot be checked independently: a requirement that a ranking editor must know the identity of a reporter's unnamed source. The one exception involves "crucial issues of law or national security in which sources face dire consequences if exposed"; only executive editor Bill Keller can waive the rule. (So far, Keller told me the other day, no one has asked him for a waiver.)
  5. Film of the blog, and US Politics 101 for those prepared to look behind the Hollywood tinsel. Online, there is a straight transcript of the movie and what purports to be a production draft.

  6. If you consume the liberal product of Air America Radio, Kos, Atrios and the boys, you'd rather get the impression that such manipulation was, indeed, a GOP preserve...

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