The public realized as a result of the outing of Valerie Plame by Robert Novak and his source in government that the romantic view of anonymous sources in journalism was exaggerated. Intrigued by the surreptitious disclosures of Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal, most readers considered the anonymous source vital to investigative journalism. Journalists sought to take that power to constitutional proportions, claiming it was rooted in the First Amendment. But Novak and his leaker demonstrated that the anonymous source could be as mischievous as Woodward and Bernstein had shown it could be heroic. In the related case of Judith Miller, the federal courts confirmed the historic rule that, valuable as sources are to media, they do not have constitutional protection.

Norman Pearlstine, Time magazine’s editor at that time, changed Time’s procedures regarding anonymous sources after the Supreme Court ruled against the press in that case. He took a lot of criticism from his peers at the time, and wrote a book, Off the Record, explaining his reasons. Prompted by the notorious Miller case, respectable journalists have spoken out about the dangers of placing too much reliance on anonymous sources, and there has been some self-examination by the respectable press.

Yesterday, The Washington Post’s ombudsman candidly noted that his paper’s rules were routinely ignored and unevenly applied. Credibility suffers and journalistic transgressions can occur, he reported, when these rules are not followed. Anonymity is overused and abused, he warned, as did The New York Times ombudsman in the recent past. The Times’s ombudsman confessed that Washington is “steeped in the culture of anonymity,” one “in which both sides have used each other for decades.” He quoted a Times Washington bureau chief who called these sources “human press releases.” Yesterday, he again criticized using unnamed sources who had made personal attacks.

In my recent book, In Confidence — When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure, I quoted numerous press experts who admitted that anonymous sources are as dangerous as they may be valuable and necessary. Pearlstine’s attempt to codify his magazine’s policies ought to have been adopted widely rather than subjecting him to criticism for trying in good faith to strike a fair and reasonable balance of the competing public interests in the subject. It may be time for organized press and media groups to adopt careful rules and procedures for applying rules governing anonymous sources. The Internet age allows whistleblowers greater powers; but it also permits serious and widespread irresponsibility.

No day goes by that the public isn’t informed about some business deal, negotiation or investigation based on information from anonymous sources. Their credibility, and that of the media that use them, depends on the standards used to assure their reliability and fairness.


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