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Swallow This, Deep Throat 

A case for silencing anonymous sources

Thursday, Apr 22 2004
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Illustration by Julie West

At the end of the day, it’s all about Mary Tyler Moore’s frightened little man. Cast your mind back to 1974 and the start of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s fifth season. There was news co-producer Mary Richards uncharacteristically alone in the WJM-TV office for a moment, when suddenly a frightened little man burst in with a raft of important clandestinely obtained papers. He wanted the world to know about them, but he didn’t want it mentioned that he was the person who delivered them. What he had dropped in Mary’s lap was a scoop. The biggest of her career, in fact. And so, after consulting with gruff but lovable station boss Lou Grant (liberal icon Ed Asner), perky but prescient Mary wrote it up and had the lovably clueless Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) read it. But then a judge in a legal proceeding those very papers dealt with demanded that Mary reveal who the frightened little man was. Citing long-hallowed fourth-estate insistence that source confidentiality is the handmaiden of free speech, she refused. And so Mary — our Mary! — was forced to spend a night in the hoosegow.

“What did they get you for?” her hooker cellmate inquired. “Impersonating a Barbie doll, right?” Actually Mary was impersonating Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine commander whose leak of the so-called Pentagon Papers had just blasted three different administration’s lies about the Vietnam war wide open. At the same time her “principled” source-shielding evoked the Watergate scandal and Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose revelations about Nixon White House chicanery were aided by a to-this-very-day unnamed source they called Deep Throat. Written by Ed Weinberger and Stan Daniels and directed by Jay Sandrich, “Will Mary Richards Go to Jail?” won an Emmy for “Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series (for a single episode of a regular or limited series with continuing characters and/or theme)” and is considered one of the best shows in the series. It was hilarious. It was remarkable. It was unforgettable.

It was hogwash.

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Yes, important papers waft a journalist’s way every blue moon or so. And yes, journalists sometimes face judicial reprimand for refusing to reveal story sources. In fact, this very month in Mary’s very city, Minneapolis, Maplewood Review reporter Wally Wakefield is facing thousands of dollars in fines for failing to reveal his sources in a story about the North St. Paul Maplewood School District’s decision not to renew the contract of a football coach at Tartan High School.

Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, is it? And not at all like the common lot of the mainstream media, where unnamed sourcing is so common it often seems a guarantor of a story’s authenticity. If some “insider” won’t speak for attribution, then it must be true.

“I hate unattributed sources and think they’re absolutely necessary to journalism,” says Daniel Okrent, recently appointed public editor at The New York Times. “I know that sounds like a terrible contradiction, but I have no other way of addressing it. They’re used much too much. They undermine the credibility of journalists and publications. On the other hand, if you did not have any unattributed sources, you would have very few whistleblowers. Let’s say there are 100 unattributed sources and 99 of them are spinners or people who are using the press, and the 100th is offering the Pentagon Papers.”

Okay, let’s. And how many Pentagon Papers have been unearthed since Ellsberg? Exactly. Thankyouverymuch. Moreover, the source of the Pentagon Papers wasn’t unattributed at all. Daniel Ellsberg’s name emerged immediately. And so did Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the “whistleblower” who blew the lid off the tobacco industry. So what are we to make of those 99 other sources who don’t want attribution because it will blow their cover as paid propagandists? Ask any journalist or editor and your head will spin from the speed at which they change the subject.

In his matchless memoir The Naked Civil Servant, defiantly effeminate gay pioneer Quentin Crisp speaks of spending the better part of his youth waiting for a “Great Dark Man” who would make his life complete, only to come to the realization that “There is no Great Dark Man!” Well, there is no frightened little man either. Though the fourth estate may persist in flattering itself with the fantasy that it guards “the public trust,” that very same public, wise to the scandal-mongering that tried to pass itself off as “investigative journalism” during the Clinton years, has come to know better. The source seeking anonymity isn’t “bucking the system” — he is the system. Robert Novak would never be mistaken by anyone for Mary Richards. This right-wing insider’s refusal to disclose precisely who in the Bush administration encouraged his “outing” in his Washington Post column of CIA agent Valerie Plame — in retaliation for her husband former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson’s pointing out a blatant lie in President Bush’s State of the Union address — was not done in the “interest” of any public save that of other Beltway denizens. Moreover, the fact that six other journalists were approached by the White House with the same story, yet declined to identify precisely who was breaking the law by doing so, does the non-Beltway public’s “trust” no good. Likewise, when New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen spread (to put it most charitably) inaccurate information about nuclear research scientist Wen Ho Lee (resulting in Lee’s being incarcerated in chains in solitary confinement without access to legal counsel for nine months), their disinclination to identify the parties who fed them this line (currently the subject of a suit lodged by Mr. Lee) is by no means a blow for a free and independent press.

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