Anonymous sourcing problems at the New York Times

There are at least three major failures of the modern press worth writing about. The first is excessive coverage of trivial events of little or no public interest. Sex scandals, celebrity lifestyles, and manufactured scandals come to mind as examples. The second is the false choice (and often wrong choice) between balance and objectivity.

The third failure is the excessive use of anonymous sources. Glenn Greenwald wrote about this in early 2010 in a post worth reading every year to remind us of what happens in democracies when the guardians of public interest forget what their jobs are. No party outside of the government was more helpful in manufacturing public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq than the pillars of print journalism, precisely because of the trust we have in them.

Clark Hoyt, the Times’ public editor in 2009, blasted his own paper for continuing to shield government officials from public scrutiny in violation of the Times’ “stylebook” section on anonymous sources. Margaret Sullivan, public editor since 2012, did it again on Tuesday, noting the indefensible use of anonymous sources even in stories that have nothing to do with the government.

Sullivan introduced a regular feature of her column where notable failures to abide by the Times’ policies would be called out in the hope that these practices will change. In supporting this effort, I’ve decided to go a little bit further than that by examining all failures across a set period of time.

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Beware your prophets

Michael Barone's 2012 battleground predictions.I’d like to think that the pundit right learned something from the 2012 election, but it doesn’t seem that way. When polls said Barack Obama was leading, they decided it wasn’t true, that those polls were biased and only they knew the truth. They were all “skewed” by firms in the bag for Democrats. Then Obama won the election proving that most pollsters were unbiased, non-partisan and spot on.

Republicans/conservatives were left with two choices: Again embrace the flawed logic that got them in trouble in 2012, or examine where they went wrong and fix what was broken.

They went with the latter.

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