Post Grants Anonymity on a Story That’s All About Advancing an Agenda

Rahm Emanuel, as The Washington Post admits, is a guy who has “long relationships with the media.”  He’s apparently cashing in his chips with a story about how well the Obama administration would be doing if it only followed Rahm’s sage advice.  It follows on Dana Milbank’s column less than two weeks ago suggesting pretty much the same thing.

Whether I agree or not (I don’t), the story again demonstrates The Post’s willingness to base a story almost entirely on anonymous sources, perhaps as many as five for this story (as we can’t be sure that at least instances aren’t the same person).

According to a person familiar with the conversations, who discussed the confidential deliberation on the condition of anonymity…

…an early Obama supporter who is close to the president and spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a frank assessment…

…said the [Congressional] member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss frustration…

…according to another administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

…who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

The newspaper seems to have forgotten its ombudsman’s advice of last August.

The Post also is inconsistent in how it describes unnamed sources and the reasons they were granted anonymity. Post policies say that readers should be told as much as possible about the quality of a confidential source ("with first-hand knowledge of the case," for instance). They also say "we must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence."

As all of the phrases above suggest, sources were granted anonymity so they could advance a broad agenda accusing the president of doing too much instead of playing the Washington game of doing the minimum that’s needed for Congressmen to get re-elected.  Basically, they were granted anonymity to feel free to bash the president as none of the reasons given for anonymity amount to more than that.

When Ombudsman Andy Alexander wrote his column on August 16, 2009, he found 160 instances of the phrase "spoke on condition of anonymity."

A LexisNexis search today finds that The Post has already used the phrase 118 times since the beginning of the year, which would work out to about 590 times for 2010.

As Alexander suggested in the headline to his August column, The Post is increasingly “Ignoring the Rules on Anonymous Sources.”

Anonymous Commenters, Pt. 2

Monday, I discussed a thoughtful column in the Miami Herald about anonymous commenters on blogs.  Another one is here today.

The columnist set up a personal Facebook account to exchange views on issues.  She required civility and the commenters’ real names and got them.  But one guy couldn’t help himself.  After starting out civil, he became more agitated and unhinged, and finally she “unfriended” him.

But she noticed similar language in comments on stories posted on her newspaper’s website (Cleveland Plain Dealer).  There he was always vitriolic and anonymous.  She confronted him online and he admitted he was the anonymous commenter.

What I find fascinating about this incident is that he behaved so differently when his picture and his name were attached to his opinions.

I have since added hundreds more "friends" to Facebook, and similar circumstances have unfolded only a handful of times. We get fired up, but we seldom lose sight of our mutual humanity.

Then why do newspapers allow comment anonymity, when they would never print an anonymous letter to the editor?

Some in the newspaper industry insist we have to allow anonymous comments to generate traffic on our Web sites, which in turn determines what we can charge for online ads. They worry that we’ll lose online readership if we require identities with comments. Discussion, they fear, will evaporate.

Reminds one of corporations that are only out for a buck.  You know, they kind of companies some editorial pages pontificate about, which of course are totally independent from the publisher’s side of the enterprise.

Anonymous comments also alienate many thoughtful readers, who are the majority of people who read newspapers. [NC Editor’s Note:  The minority, those not very thoughtful, read gossip columns while watching “Fox News”.] When readers complain to me about ugly comments, I urge them to weigh in, but most balk. It’s like trying to persuade your friends to visit a great tavern in a bad neighborhood: They want nothing to do with that side of town.

Others think anonymous abusive comments actually hurt the newspaper.

"You can’t monetize jerks," [a newspaper editor] said.

This editor apparently didn’t want to give his name because he was not authorized to talk about readers.

Most Americans believe civility matters.

They also believe it comes with a name.

Anonymous Blog Commenters

I have a problem with anonymous comments on a blog.  I think in the public square as our forefathers envisioned it, you could say whatever you want, but being in the square we would know who you are.  That said, many of the early pamphleteers were anonymous.  So the tradition is well established.  The right to hand out anonymous fliers was protected as recently as 1995 by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Vivian Paige  has a recent post about her new comment policy and there ensued a discussion that I was part of on the issue.

Now comes the issue of whether anonymous blog commenters can hide behind their anonymity to libel anyone with scurrilous charges.  Apparently, the Wausau Daily Herald revealed names of anonymous commenters who posted charges of malfeasance by a top administrator of a small Wisconsin town.  After the paper did so as the administrator demanded, its parent, Gannett, apologized for what it said was a mistake.  The newspaper conglomerate said it had a duty to conceal the names, claiming that such comments were due the same protection as anonymous sources in a newspaper story.

Courts have recently agreed that state shield laws apply to the anonymous commenters.

Edward Wasserman, a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee university, thinks that’s wrong headed.  Comparing anonymous sources to anonymous bloggers doesn’t hold water.

Plainly, there are good reasons to seek anonymity: You might fear reprisal or embarrassment, or might simply want your ideas considered independently of who you are. And the court said those preferences should not affect your right to comment, especially on matters of public policy.

But suppose that leaflet isn’t taking a stand on a school tax. It’s a false and damaging denunciation of some school board member. And she wants to sue.

The authors are anonymous, but she knows where the leaflet was printed, so she persuades a judge to order the printer to disclose her tormentors. The printer is supposed to comply.

Unless it’s a news organization. Then, apparently, the printer is supposed to resist. And the board member who was slimed is out of luck.

That seems unfair, unless there’s some good, overriding public benefit at stake. That’s where the anonymous-source rationale is being invoked: Some news sources provide valuable information that they might never furnish unless they knew they’d be safe from reprisal. The writers of the anonymous posts are no different.

Except that anonymous posters are nothing like confidential sources.

First, a confidential source is not anonymous; the reporter knows who it is and is obligated to evaluate the source’s credibility. The identity of the anonymous poster, on the other hand, is truly unknown. He or she could be an ex-spouse, a delusional sociopath or both. Nobody knows.

Second, no one even tries to verify the information from the anonymous poster. Information from a confidential source should be, and normally is, evaluated and scrutinized before it’s published.

Reporter shield laws are an expression of trust. Lawmakers have said, in effect, that they have enough regard for the value of news, and for the capacity of the journalist to assess information from vulnerable sources, that they’ve carved out a huge area of discretion. To ensure the flow of publicly significant information, they allow the journalist to help people with valuable information to stay in the shadows when the journalist determines, in good faith, that they must.

That’s a huge grant of trust. And claiming for anonymous posters the protections that confidential sources deserve debases the currency, makes a whistleblower no different from a crank. As an ethical matter it’s indefensible. As a political reality, it’s a surefire way to guarantee the demise of source protections.

Can bloggers earn that “grant of trust”?  As many bloggers themselves are anonymous, I wouldn’t hold your breath.  I am certain there will be more challenges to the idea that anonymity should granted as a safeguard for malicious libel.