Rahm Emanuel

Post Ombudsman Admits Paper’s Overuse of Anonymous Sources

Apparently several other people contacted the Washington Post ombudsman to complain about the front page story on Rahm Emanuel.  He responded in Sunday’s column.

While a lot of folks complained about a “conspiracy” at The Post, Alexander agreed with the contention, as I posted last week, that the story relied too heavily on anonymous sources.

A greater problem, I think, was its heavy reliance on anonymous quotes. At least a dozen people were quoted by name, showing depth of reporting. But there were more than a half dozen others quoted anonymously, comprising more than a quarter of the story’s length. Most supported Emanuel. The story could have stood on its own without them.

Readers properly complain about The Post’s overuse of anonymous sources. They’re often unavoidable, and Horowitz said he granted anonymity only after failing to persuade sources to speak on the record. But assertions offered with impunity erode credibility, especially when politically savvy readers suspect that Emanuel supporters are trying to spin The Post.

He then goes on to say that the paper is using anonymous quotes at a greater rate than it did last year, though his numbers don’t jibe with mine.  When I do a search for the term “spoke on conditional of anonymity” I found 118 instances through a LexisNexis.  That includes Post stories on sports and all other categories of stories.  Alexander claims only 70 such stories.  I can’t explain the difference.

But I thank him for writing about it.

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.”