I have taken the New York Times to task occasionally for overuse of unnamed sources. So I join my friend Erik Wemple in saluting the Times for excellent use of an on-the-record source for a story about efforts to educate presidential candidate Ben Carson about foreign affairs.
Consider how differently this paragraph would read without the source’s name:
‘Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,’ Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Mr. Carson on terrorism and national security, said in an interview. He also said Mr. Carson needed weekly conference calls briefing him on foreign policy so ‘we can make him smart.’
Without the name, I might wonder how high in the Carson campaign this “top adviser” really is. I would wonder if the adviser is really sitting in these briefings with Carson or hearing about them second-hand. I would wonder if the adviser is about to get fired and venting frustration on the way out the door. Some readers might wonder if the adviser really exists.
Instead, I can use Google to learn quickly that Clarridge is a former high official in the CIA (author of A Spy for All Seasons). I can read an interview with Clarridge and judge for myself how credible he is or I can read about his role in the Iran/Contra scandal of the 1980s.
I’m usually not going to do that much research, but the very fact that the source used his name, whether I know anything about that person or not, means that the source stands behind his account of what’s happening int he Carson campaign. The fact that he’s willing to take the heat from Carson and his supporters gives the story credibility.
If the Times writes that story based on an unnamed source, the Carson campaign’s response would be a well-deserved rebuke to the Times for using “anonymous” sources, an easy way to attack the credibility of a story. Instead, the Carson campaign weakly accused the Times of “taking advantage of an elderly gentleman.” That, of course, raised the question of why the campaign was taking the advice of such a feeble-minded person (and, as Wemple pointed out, why Carson business manager Armstrong Williams suggested the Times reporter talk to Clarridge).
You can love Ben Carson or you can hate him (as I noted earlier, meme-makers love him). You can agree with his views on foreign affairs or disagree. But with Clarridge on the record, you know that at least one of his advisers doesn’t find Carson to be a quick study on foreign issues.
Congratulations (and thanks) to the New York Times for reporting this story strongly with a named source.
Earlier posts on using unnamed sources
New York Times story based on unnamed sources: 2 big corrections
New York Times frequently violates its attribution standards
Washington Examiner story on unnamed sources
Dean Baquet needs to get mad about NY Times’ use of unnamed sources
ESPN’s Ray Rice reporting made responsible use of unnamed sources
From 2005: Unnamed sources should have unpublished opinions
Judith Miller still blames sources for her false reporting
Again: journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories
Anonymous sources: Factors to consider in using them (and don’t call them anonymous)
A 2005 handout on confidential sources: ‘You didn’t hear this from me …’
Updated lessons: Use confidential sources to get on-the-record interviews
Wall Street Journal lets cowardly sources avoid accountability in Goldman Sachs story
Spokespeople should be named; set the bar high for confidentiality
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