Highlighting anonymous cowards

Your elected officals at work.
Your elected officals at work.

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, is calling out her own paper by tracking the misuse of anonymous sources in her column this afternoon.  I support a strong and sustained effort in this area. Everyone’s standards vary, but I believe that a person should only be allowed anonymity when there is a credible threat of retaliation and punishment.

Anonymously smearing political foes or merely wanting to conceal your identity because you fear (probably justfiable) damage to your reputation should never suffice as justification, yet it is on a regular basis at the Times and practically everywhere else.

In support of Margaret’s effort, I contribute this story to the “tracking” of Anonymous Coward quotations in the Times, published today:

American officials made clear they will ratchet up the pressure if Mr. Putin does not back down. They went immediately back to the Situation Room after the announcement to begin work on a next round of sanctions that could come as early as this week. Mr. Obama’s new executive order expanded the scope of his authority to target three groups: Russian government officials, the Russian arms industry and Russians who work on behalf of government officials, the latter called “Russian government cronies” by a senior American official.

While targeting a limited number of individuals at first, administration officials said the scope of the new order was broader than any aimed at Moscow in decades. “These are by far the most comprehensive sanctions applied to Russia since the end of the Cold War — far and away so,” said another senior official, who under the ground rules set by the administration was not identified.

Journalists often won’t explain why they gave a source anonymity, but this case appears to be worse than that. Was there some agreement between the New York Times and the Obama administration (or between the administration and Steven Lee Myers and Peter Baker) not to name these sources? It sounds like that’s the case. Such an agreement raises a number of questions:

  • Is this policy paper-wide?
  • Does this agreement cover other select stories?
  • Is it common practice at the Times to make such agreements?
  • Does the agreement cover something other than the identity of administration officials?
  • Do these officials or other people in the administration get “quote approval” before publishing?
  • Why do either of these government employees deserve anonymity in the first place?
  • Was there a way to get the information from a named source?
  • Can the information be corroborated? If it was, that wasn’t mentioned in the story.

I can’t think of any reason why anonymity is warranted for an administration official to say “These are by far the most comprehensive sanctions applied to Russia since the end of the Cold War”. Regardless of whether that’s true or not, it’s not a state secret or a piece of classified information and it’s not internal administration deliberation. I can’t see anyone being punished for stating such a benign opinion with their name attached to it, with or without permission.

I applaud this effort to track down and highlight violations of the NYT’s internal policy on the use of anonymous quotes, and I hope it becomes a regular thing that actually changes behavior at the paper. Although I wonder if it wouldn’t be a better use of time to track this specific poor journalistic behavior across the entire media.

And given how determined the federal government is to know every last secret about you and I, it hardly seems fair to let government officials speak anonymously to the media with no good reason for it.

Paul Tenny

Paul Tenny

I'm not a journalist but I do it anyway. I cover elections and have interviewed television writers and producers.
Paul Tenny

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