Update: Wall Street Journal reporter David Enrich has responded. I have added his response below.
Who is the first of the 5 W’s, one of journalism’s fundamentals. You need a compelling reason to withhold a source’s identity, and the Wall Street Journal had no such reason to withhold names in reporting the Goldman Sachs response to a New York Times op-ed piece about the ethics and culture of Goldman Sachs by Greg Smith.
Here’s one of the passages in question:
“We disagree with the views expressed, which we don’t think reflect the way we run our business,” a Goldman spokeswoman said. “In our view, we will only be successful if our clients are successful. This fundamental truth lies at the heart of how we conduct ourselves.”
There is no reason in the world to withhold the name of that source. In a response to Rosen, Francine McKenna tweeted:
— Francine McKenna (@retheauditors) March 15, 2012
The answer to such a request should be: “That doesn’t meet our standards for granting confidentiality. Your choice is to be in this story with your name attached to your comment or not to be in the story.” Do you think for a minute that Goldman Sachs would have not given that self-serving quote to the Wall Street Journal with the spokeswoman’s name if the Journal had responded with some backbone?
The argument that this is a routine practice isn’t true. And it’s an inadequate excuse. News organizations quote thousands of spokespeople from government, business, education and other organizations ever day. (My son, Mike, used to be spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel. Even though Hagel retired three years ago, I still found more than 4,000 hits when I Googled Mike’s name and “Hagel”. He was routinely quoted speaking for Hagel.) If some financial reporters grant confidentiality routinely, that doesn’t excuse the practice any more than routine lying by politicians excuses their lies.
Update: See the response below from Journal reporter David Enrich. He says the statement was on the record, but the Journal did not use her name. Puzzling to me, but since journalists responded in defense of the practice of not quoting spokespeople, I have not rewritten the passage above.
The second passage Rosen cited is even more egregious:
Mr. Smith described himself as an executive director and head of Goldman’s U.S. equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
A person familiar with the matter said Mr. Smith’s role is actually vice president, a relatively junior position held by thousands of Goldman employees around the world. And Mr. Smith is the only employee in the derivatives business that he heads, this person said.
Smith was courageously on the record, risking his career and future employment in his devastating disclosures about the attitudes and practices at Goldman Sachs (which, as Matt Taibbi noted, are consistent with findings of a U.S. Senate investigation). It is unconscionable for journalists and news organizations to allow anonymous sniping in response to such an on-the-record statement. The Journal reporter, David Enrich, should have told the “person familiar with the matter” that such sniping has no credibility without a name and doesn’t belong in the story without a name.
(I have sent Enrich a draft of this post, inviting response. He asked for “a few minutes” to consult with his bosses. I waited an hour and half before posting. If he responds, I will add his response.) Update: See Enrich’s response below.
Whether the “familiar” person used the name or not, such a claim should not be published without documentation. If this person knows this detail about Smith’s place in the organization, he or she certainly has access to a Goldman Sachs directory or org chart that would bolster the claim. A person’s title or role, and the number of people he or she supervises, and the number of Goldman Sachs vice presidents are matters of fact. Reporters should document those facts, not attribute them to gutless, unidentified people. If this person lacks the courage to put his or her name with the purported facts, the reporter should treat the information as a tip to be verified or refuted by further reporting, not as contentions of a nameless coward.
Reporters should always ask about and examine the motives of sources requesting confidentiality. Two possible reasons someone might not want to associate their names with “facts” they are telling a reporter are that the person is lying or that the person is unsure of the facts. In either case, the reporter should get to the real facts, rather than being the coward’s conduit to the public. A reporter’s most important question, whether a source is on the record or off, is, “How do you know that?” If a person unwilling to give his or her name can provide documentation, you don’t need the name. And if the person can’t provide documentation, you shouldn’t publish the facts until you can verify the claim yourself.
The first point of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is “Seek truth and report it.” You should only grant confidentiality in a quest to find the truth. Granting confidentiality to cowards too often leads to reporting of lies.
Unnamed sources have played important roles in journalism. The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting could not have been accomplished without granting confidentiality to Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”) and many more courageous sources. Many other outstanding chapters in journalism history have relied on confidential sources. But excessive use of unnamed sources hurts the credibility of our profession. Journalists need to grant confidentiality sparingly to whistle blowers and to government, military and business sources who courageously disclose important information that serves the public interest.
But we should seldom or ever grant confidentiality to those in power. Confidentiality should be a last resort we offer to persuade people good motivations not to speak to override those motivations, not a cloak we give to people who are eager to speak without accountability.
Spokespeople are paid to speak for their companies. I cannot envision a case when a spokeswoman should be given confidentiality when speaking for her company (perhaps if she was giving me a detail the company didn’t want out, such as something confirming Smith’s account). Anonymous opinions should be left for the comment sections (if anywhere). People in power should not be granted confidentiality, especially to snipe at the less powerful. And statements of fact should be verified or refuted, not parroted.
Jay was right to call this practice “pathetic.”
Update: Here is Enrich’s response:
1. The Goldman spokeswoman’s comment – which came from a widely disseminated prepared statement — was on the record. That is not an anonymous source. We simply didn’t name her. Other media outlets handled this similarly. Buttry response: Wow! I don’t understand why you would not name someone who was on the record.
2. As for the “person familiar with the matter” quoted in the same blog item, it is true that it would have been better to have that on the record.
3. The blog item in question was a short, quick reaction piece. It was a small part of the WSJ’s extensive coverage of this resignation letter in blog posts, news articles, video segments and other media throughout the day. The final version of our main story, which appeared on page C1 of today’s US print edition as well as prominently online, did not include this sourcing or information.