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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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.

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