Because I wrote today about unnamed sources, I thought this might be a good time to republish a blog post from my old Training Tracks blog for the American Press Institute. This was originally published Dec. 19, 2005. I have not checked to see whether the links are still good, but I think I should leave them in even if they aren’t:
The New York Times story on domestic spying by the Bush administration provides a bit of a comeback for the legitimate use of confidential sources.
That story presented lots to argue about: Should the Times have yielded to administration pressure and waited a year to publish the story (especially if that “year” was really a year-plus and meant they waited until after the 2004 elections)? Should the Times have published the story at all?
This much is clear, though: You can’t question the credibility of the story because the reporters, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, did not name their sources. President Bush confirmed the story the next day.
This was an excellent illustration of exactly why journalists need to continue defending the responsible use of confidential sources. The Nov. 2 story by Dana Priest of the Washington Post, revealing the CIA’s use of secret overseas prisons, was another illustration. These are important stories that tell how our government was operating and they cannot be told through sources speaking on the record.
But other stories in the Times and Post on the same issues show how easy it is to slip into sloppy, unnecessary use of unnamed sources. Editors and reporters need to protect the credibility of valuable stories like these by raising and enforcing high standards in the use of confidential sources.
A Dec. 18 analysis by the Post’s Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer shows an example of how and why you should use confidential sources in a story. President Bush said in his radio address Saturday morning that the administration had briefed Congress on its domestic surveillance operations. Citing “a high-ranking intelligence official with firsthand knowledge,” the Post provided details of that briefing: “Vice President Cheney, then-Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet and Michael V. Hayden, then a lieutenant general and director of the National Security Agency, briefed four key members of Congress about the NSA’s new domestic surveillance on Oct. 25, 2001, and Nov. 14, 2001, shortly after Bush signed a highly classified directive that eliminated some restrictions on eavesdropping against U.S. citizens and permanent residents.”
We should report specific, important facts from confidential sources if we cannot get them on the record. We should not do what the Post did later in that analysis, let sources spout opinion or spin without going on the record.
Former Sen. Bob Graham, one of the four members of Congress at those meetings gave specific on-the-record recollections that disputed Bush’s claim that the administration had briefed Congress about the domestic surveillance.
Following some quotes from Graham, the Post reported: “The high-ranking intelligence official, who spoke with White House permission but said he was not authorized to be identified by name, said Graham is ‘misremembering the briefings,’ which in fact were ‘very, very comprehensive.’ The official declined to describe any of the substance of the meetings, but said they were intended ‘to make sure the Hill knows this program in its entirety, in order to never, ever be faced with the circumstance that someone says, “I was briefed on this but I had no idea that –” and you can fill in the rest.’
“By Graham’s account, the official said, ‘it appears that we held a briefing to say that nothing is different. … Why would we have a meeting in the vice president’s office to talk about a change and then tell the members of Congress there is no change?”
If we’re going to improve the credibility of the news business, we have to stop letting partisans, whether from the administration or Congress or anywhere else, snipe like that from behind rocks. I don’t know if Graham misremembered the briefings or not, but he was willing to publicly state his recollection of the briefings. If this intelligence official doesn’t have the guts – or the permission – to identify himself or herself, his or her spin doesn’t belong in the newspaper.
Reporters have to be tougher with sources seeking the protection of confidentiality when they want to fire back at sources who are on the record. You need to tell the source to produce some documents from that meeting or go on the record or the president’s version will have to stand alone against Graham’s.
It was particularly egregious that the Post let the source sarcastically mischaracterize Graham’s account as saying that nothing was different. Three paragraphs earlier, Graham was quoted saying, “I came out of the room with the full sense that we were dealing with a change in technology but not policy.”
It’s not as though the unclaimed remark adds balance to the story. In fact, the quotes throw off the balance. Graham was countering what President Bush said. If the president is on the record giving the administration position, why do we need to add an unnamed administration voice?
That analysis piece accompanied a news story by Peter Baker on President Bush’s address. Even that news story degenerated into use of spin from a source who lacked the courage or integrity or standing (we are left to guess) to put his or her (still guessing) name with his or her views: “But in this case, with the Patriot Act renewal on the line, the president’s advisers calculated that they should go on the offensive. ‘This directly takes on the Democrats and puts them in a box – support our efforts to protect Americans or defend positions that put our nation’s security at greater risk,’ said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss political strategy. “We are confident most Americans support the president’s actions.”
Maybe I can see a situation where you could justify using confidential sources to discuss strategy in a story, but not to cast the president as protecting Americans and Democrats as jeopardizing our nation’s security. That kind of opinion is worthless without a name.
But the source apparently had no trouble finding journalists willing to peddle the worthless opinion. David E. Sanger of the New York Times had this nearly identical passage: “…one senior administration official said, speaking on background because, he said, the White House wanted the president to be the only voice on the issue. ‘This is directly taking on the critics. The Democrats are now in the position of supporting our efforts to protect Americans, or defend positions that could weaken our nation’s security.'”
Three weeks ago at The Oregonian, Rosalie Stemer and I presented API’s first “Our Readers Are Watching” seminar, an API Tailored Program to help newsrooms clarify and teach their positions on the many difficult issues facing journalism today. In recognition that confidential sources present some of the thorniest issues, the Oregonian’s editors asked us to schedule two sessions to discuss how and when to use confidential source. Each session was well attended, reflecting the high interest in the issue.
Confidential sources can present some valid questions and tough decisions: How can we trust this source? How does this source know what he or she is telling us? Can we find someone who will tell us this on the record? Can we find a document to confirm what this source is telling us? Do we have enough sources to be sure that we are ready to publish this story?
Let’s not allow the tough decisions to cloud our judgment for the easy decisions. This one is easy: When sources are sharing opinions, especially critical opinions, and say “you can’t use my name,” you answer, “then you can’t use my newspaper.”