I have to weigh in on yesterday’s ethics outrage at the Washington Post.
No, I’m not talking about Dave Weigel. I don’t have much to say about his “resignation” from the Post.
The real ethical outrage was that this respected news organization allowed itself to be used by gutless, unprincipled military officials to smear the name of Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings.
The Washington Post has a long, proud and honorable history of breaking important stories — from Watergate to secret CIA prisons — using confidential sources. But it also has a serious problem of promiscuously shielding sources who don’t deserve protection and who aren’t providing information that merits confidentiality. Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander wrote last month that the Post “grants anonymity at the drop of a hat.”
The hats dropped this week had lots of high-ranking military insignia on them. And, however many heroism medals those character assassins had, the Post reporters and editors should have told them that until they had the courage to stand behind their accusations, their doubtful claims had no place in the Washington Post. Michael Hastings was being accused of being unethical, and someone making such an accusation should do so publicly or shut up.
I read the Post’s policy on confidential sources, and I believe that the Post story by Karen DeYoung and Rajiv Chandrasekaran probably did not meet the standards on multiple points. I was surprised, though, to see that the Post policy did not cover another important issue in dealing with confidential sources: Journalists should not publish personal attacks by sources who are not willing to be identified publicly.
The timing was interesting: The story appeared on the Post’s website the same day as Weigel’s foolish email remarks cost him his job (whether he resigned or was fired being immaterial to the end result, as in the case of McChrystal). I have already written that journalism organizations should reassess their slavish devotion to the false god of objectivity. But Weigel knew the Post worshipped at the altar of that god. In fact, the very editor who accepted his resignation, Raju Narisetti, was slapped quite publicly for tweeting an opinion last year. And anyone who thinks that emails you send a listserv is private is incredibly naïve. I just see this as a continuation of the Post’s discomfort with how journalism is changing. So I am not going to weigh in further on the Weigel issue.
While the Weigel issue created a big stir, I haven’t seen much criticism of the Hastings story. But the issue of confidentiality is a longtime issue in journalism ethics and the Post is the news organization with the most famous confidential source of all time. The Post should be able to get that issue right. These sources were not whistle-blowers and should not be granted confidentiality.
The generals — excuse me, “senior military officials” — who talked to the Post were not particularly trying to “salvage his reputation,” as the Post story reported. McChrystal appears no less insubordinate if he was savaging President Obama and other administration leaders off the record in the presence of his command staff and a reporter. That would just be insubordinate and cowardly. The general is gone and his reputation is not going to change: Some people will honor him for speaking what they see as the truth, others will regard him as insubordinate.
No, the military brass who used the Post were trying to punish Hastings and to warn other reporters who don’t play their insider game. But the Post takes a casual view about confidentiality, so they let their news organization be used by gutless generals. I don’t believe these accusations against Hastings if the accuser is hiding behind the Post.
A reporter’s response when sources try such character assassination should be to ask the source to confirm the spelling of his or her name. Because personal attacks should not be made without a named source.
Update: Jeff Jarvis takes this issue further (as you might expect), discussing the broader issue of attribution (and linking) in an outstanding post, The importance of provenance. I emailed the Washington Post writers, inviting them to comment on this blog. They have not done so, but Post National Security Editor Cameron Barr defends (weakly, in my view) the use of unnamed sources in an interview with Yahoo! News media writer Michael Calderone.