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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.

What we get instead is 60 Minutes and the blatant sob-sisterism of Beltway insider Bob Woodward, who, in promoting Plan of Attack, his new book on the “run-up to the war,” spoke of the moment when Bush declared war on Iraq: “People who were there said there were tears in his eyes, not coming down his cheeks but in his eyes.”

Very Joan Crawford.

Maybe we’re supposed to be impressed that even though 60 Minutes won’t name those interviewed, the show’s producers tell us that Woodward permitted them “to listen to tapes he recorded of his most important interviews, to read the transcripts, and to verify that the quotes he uses are based on recollections from participants in the key meetings.”

But besides Bush’s butch blubbering, what’s in the book? Petty gossip about Dick Cheney and Colin Powell disliking each other, and the disclosure that CIA head George Tenet assured Bush that it was a “slam-dunk case” regarding Saddam Hussein’s mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction. So Woodward gets his story, Bush gets his fall guy, and all the sources, except for Bush himself, are as silent as the graves of thousands of Iraqis we slaughtered in “Show and Awe.”

“The public has lost its trust in journalism, and I’m not entirely convinced it isn’t justified,” says Okrent. He, like Michael Getler, the “ombudsman” of the Washington Post, and David Shaw, the “media critic” of the Los Angeles Times (who declined to be interviewed for this article), has clearly been mandated to restore standards in the wake of the incessantly discussed Jayson Blair, whose fabrication of fairly trivial stories, replete with invented sources, led to his firing and the resignation of top New York Times editor Howell Raines and ceaseless breast-beating elsewhere in the fourth estate about the supposed peril of “affirmative action” — Blair being black and therefore suspect a priori. But to many observers Blair is beside the point when it comes to the Times “turning a new leaf.”

“It’s all PR,” scoffs Nation scribe and author Eric Alterman, who, on tour for his most recent work (The Book on Bush), speaks excitedly of a public attuned to Bush administration outrages and eager to hear from a press involved in something other than perpetual fealty to the powers that be. “The Times has apologized for Jayson Blair, but it hasn’t apologized for Judith Miller!” says Alterman. “That I’d like to see!”

Miller, a Pulitzer Prize winner of until recently no small journalistic repute has long been considered a large feather in the Times’ cap. But her reporting on Iraq, in which claims concerning Saddam Hussein’s apparently mythical weapons of mass destruction were made through her by both a clearly identified Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and an unidentified man in a baseball cap “standing off in the distance,” who military “sources” had told Miller had told them about them has been widely — and deservedly — criticized. So much so that a recent Times profile of Chalabi (“Chalabi, Nimble Exile, Searches for Role in Iraq,” March 26) was assigned to a less-than-completely-impressed Dexter Filkins. (Miller did not respond to an e-mail seeking her side of the story.)

“[Jayson] Blair and [Judith] Miller have more in common than you might think,” Alterman’s Nation colleague Russ Baker pointed out in a recent column. “Both are in trouble for giving readers dubious information. While Miller’s alleged improprieties are of a more subtle nature, and she comes into this rough patch with an estimable reputation built over the course of a long and distinguished career, her case reveals a great deal about the state of today’s news media.”

And the most revealing thing, as author Michael Massing discloses in a much-discussed New York Review of Books article (“Now They Tell Us,” February 26, 2004) vetted by Miller herself, was that “Not until September 29, 2003, for instance, did The New York Times get around to informing readers about the controversy over Chalabi and the defectors associated with him.”

“I’ve always felt that the use of unnamed sources should be restricted to those who are providing valuable, credible information at considerable risk to themselves,” Baker writes. “That is, they are revealing something that powerful people, including perhaps their own bosses or sponsors, wish to suppress. Miller and others like her have twisted the concept badly. Under their formula, powerful people get to float self-serving material. Basically, the Miller formula is a lazy and dishonest way of doing journalism. It goes like this: Promise the bosses at your paper that you will get scoops, then cut deals with highly placed individuals to serve as their conduit to the front pages. Not the kind of shoe-leather reporting I learned in journalism school.”

But “shoe leather” isn’t greatly prized in a “Beltway” culture. “Today’s top-drawer Washington news people,” veteran New York Times humor columnist Russell Baker notes, “are members of a highly educated, upper-middle-class elite; they belong to the culture for which the American system works exceedingly well. Which is to say, they are, in the pure sense of the word, extremely conservative. When I started out as a police reporter, I lived next door to a cop. Reporters don’t come out of those neighborhoods nowadays. We’ve all moved uptown.”

And once you move uptown, what happens downtown — or anywhere else for that matter — becomes less of a concern. Consequently, the advancement of gossip as “newsworthy” and the “outsourcing” of information requiring shoe leather. This isn’t to say that gossip has never played a role, or that serious reporters can always remain above the fray. Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre and Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia, only to stub his toe on a volume on the Kennedys, which was far more reminiscent in tone of Maurine Watkins’ Chicago Tribune items that became the basis of her play Chicago than anything else. Hersh, on his way to Pakistan this week, could not be reached to share his insights. It’s the question of tone that comes most sharply into play with source anonymity — coupled with what should be any attentive reader’s query, “Why are you telling me all of this?” That question has also been asked by veteran reporters, such as Jimmy Breslin of Newsday, who, when challenged on a recent item in a column he wrote regarding anti-gay fundamentalist Lou Sheldon, not only defended himself but in speaking to a writer for the New York Observer struck out at the Times: “These blind quotes — ‘He spoke on the basis of anonymity; we were not to give his name’ — what do you call that? You call that craven,” he said. “What do you mean, he won’t give you his name? On what basis, that he’s not going to talk? You can’t keep him out of your fucking living room! They want to get in the paper!”

 

Veteran ombudsman Geneva Olverholser, whose Poynter Institute Online column keeps track of all manner of journalism issues, opposes any absolute rule against using anonymous sources. “But we have taken what is an honorable and important tool and rendered it practically unusable because we use it so much. When I was at the Washington Post, I found one instance where somebody at the National Airport was saying it was a difficult day for flying because of the weather, ‘Said so-and-so, who asked not to be named.’ They didn’t want to go on record about the weather! Readers are suspicious of people who won’t let their names be caught anywhere near their statements in a newspaper article. They called me when I was ombudsman and said, ‘Look, you’ve got all these anonymous sources in here — why shouldn’t I assume that you made it up?’ And when I would speak to people like Woodward and others at the Post and say ‘This is a serious problem for us,’ they say ‘Oh you know people know they can trust me.’ Well, people don’t trust them.”

Clearly responding to this lack of trust, several veteran journalists have recently been forced to pay the price, from the News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, to the Chicago Tribune. Most dramatic of all, however, was when Jack Kelley of USA Today, who resigned in January of 2004 after 21 years when it was discovered that he compromised over 100 stories — far more than Jayson Blair — replete with unverifiable sources and information later proved to be false, including one account of a suicide bombing in Israel that made him a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist. His since-discredited words told of the head of a victim, eyes still blinking, lodged in a ceiling.

The New York Times’ policy puts the problem this way: “In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading.” This telling admission appears in the Confidential News Source Policy sent to the Times staff on February 25 of this year. Overall this memo is not all that different from the one released by the Washington Post on February 19. Both memos, while encouraging restraint and caution in unnamed-source usage, are also equipped with enough explanatory loopholes to drive the proverbial truck through. “There are stories where there does not appear to be any great need for anonymity, yet it’s accepted much too easily,” says Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler. “You need to go as far as possible to give the reader some idea of who’s talking.”

This speaks to the “news behind the news” of the sort that surfaced in the Wen Ho Lee affair, in which the noted scientist faced accusations of treason while an apparent double agent named Katrina Leung (currently under investigation) eluded scrutiny while working as a fund-raiser for the Republican National Committee. In the Lee case, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson stingingly wrote: “The court has some doubt that a truly worthy First Amendment interest rises in protecting the identity of government personnel who disclose to the press information that the privacy act says they must not reveal.”

Journalist and former Clinton White House confidant Sidney Blumenthal says the source’s name is common knowledge. “It was Neutra Trulock — who is a right-wing nut. He’s a discredited figure who gave utterly contentious, ideologically driven, partisan and politically motivated information. And everyone knows that’s who they’re protecting by not giving up his name — that person, somebody who lied to them. I believe that if a journalist is lied to by somebody they’re not obligated to protect them. Basically these reporters were used in a political dirty trick. [Jeff] Gerth and [James] Risen [the Times reporters on the Wen Ho Lee story] were manipulated, they were tooled. Why should they turn this into a First Amendment martyrdom case? And frankly these guys also have another obligation, which is to write about — better than Howell Raines did about the Wen Ho Lee case when the Times wrote its tortured mea culpa — to explain their abuse of having been used badly and what they think about having done a story. Hiding behind a journalistic privilege is simply a form of dishonesty and cowardice. Gerth said he would have no comment because of pending litigation filed by Lee against the government.

“Now take the case of Valerie Plame,” Blumenthal continues, his gorge declining to descend. “According to Robert Novak, two senior administration officials told him that she was a covert CIA operative. That’s true information. However, the reason why that name was given out was in order to try and intimidate and discredit Joseph Wilson, who had been on a mission for the ‰ United States government, had done the service he’d been asked to do, and performed well. He provided invaluable intelligence in his report, and the government, under Bush, wished to lie about it, to suppress him and to suppress letting the public know about it. And as a result of that, two people, according to Robert Novak, committed serious crimes against the national security of the United States. He knows who they are. He is a person who has long been used by a variety of right-wing and neo-conservative people as an outlet — often to smear people . . . This is not a case of freedom of expression protected by the First Amendment.”

Ringing as Blumenthal’s denunciation may be, it fails to impress Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an organization devoted to defending what it sees as a journalist’s First Amendment right not to disclose sources.

“That’s an ethical decision the journalist has to make,” Dalglish says calmly. “We don’t interfere in those ethical decisions.”

 

Well, some might find that prospect tempting. But the Beltway information-spinning of Novak is clearly an unintended consequence of Watergate and the Mother of All Unnamed Sources, Deep Throat.

“The story behind Deep Throat is Bob Woodward,” says veteran journalist Lucian K. Truscott the Fourth, who made his name expending shoe leather in covering everything from the Vietnam War to the Stonewall uprising, and continues to this day in Iraq, from which he just returned and was about to go back to when I spoke to him in February.

“Woodward went to Yale, just like John Kerry. He was in ROTC. He went into the Navy in ‘Intelligence.’ He was a ‘briefer’ at the National Security Council in the early days of the Nixon administration, when Al Haig was deputy to Kissinger. So he would go over from the Pentagon for the 8 o’clock to talk about what the world situation was when Vietnam was going on. Those briefings at the NSC could be pretty big fish. He would be the briefcase-carrying guy, and some days they would say ‘And the part about the delta situation with our spec boats, Lieutenant Woodward?’ And he’d stand up and brief. He had excellent intelligence sources. So Deep Throat, most probably, is somebody who was in the CIA or the FBI, or somebody who was in government but actually in the CIA. You can be in the agency and never go in the CIA building. Never be on a payline that says CIA and you’re in the agency.

“Deep Throat could well have been an agency guy who was an aide in the White House or somebody in the Commerce Department. So Woodward went to him and said, ‘I’m lost on this story. Where are the boundaries?’ The guy was clearly upset with what Nixon was doing, so he said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to give you clear information, but I’ll tell you when you’re on the reservation and when you’re off.’ He was never sourced as ‘a source says.’ He might have said ‘You’re looking in the wrong direction.’ He wouldn’t say ‘It’s Mitchell’ or not. He’d say ‘Don’t look over there. Look higher.’ So he’s not a source in the way we think of today. At the time of Deep Throat, unnamed sourcing was an element almost exclusively of investigative reporting. Now any schmuck walking down the street with a pencil and a notebook is going to file a story on, say, Michael Jackson — ‘a source tells me.’ Well, that’s not investigative reporting. One of the reasons Deep Throat stayed anonymous back then was if it came out that he was ratting, they would kill him. That is an anonymous source. The distinction you ought to make is what the stakes are. Now, if somebody whispers and says ‘I know where Michael Jackson goes at night, but you can’t quote me,’ nothing’s going to happen to that guy.”

Truscott, the great-great-grandson of Jefferson, has to his dismay discovered in Iraq few reporters in pursuit of the truth. “One of the first things that occurred to me when I arrived was ‘Where is the David Halberstam of this generation? Where are the talented reporters? Where are the journalistic thinkers?’ It’s not just an opportunity, it’s a story that’s screaming for that kind of talent to be brought to bear on it. Where are these people? They’re sitting on NBC talk shows, like Tucker Carlson and those little turds. He’s one of the guys that got a guided tour and then slept in Kuwait. You may as well fly over at 15,000 feet and look down. You’d see more than he saw. There was hardly anybody there spending any time in November. I asked about other journalists, and they pointed out this very young, very attractive girl. Who was she? She was writing up reports for Oliver North!”

She was gathering some “background” that doubtless will be of use to the former officer in some forthcoming broadcast. The “backgrounding” she provides is quite different from that offered by the Bush administration — even when it comes from the president himself.

“Bush’s views emerged from an unusual 80-minute session in the Oval Office with five network correspondents who agreed that his comments would not be directly quoted or attributed to him,” noted journalist Mike Allen in a March 3 Washington Post story ( “In Private, Bush Sees Kerry as Formidable Foe”). In other words, Bush offered information with the proviso that the pretense be made that said information wasn’t coming from him. Kind of like a ventriloquist — with the press as the dummy.

A similar deal broke apart on March 24, when, in the middle of the hearings on the events of September 11, Fox News Channel, whose connections to the Republican party and the Bush White House are scarcely a matter of dispute, disclosed a transcript of a soundbite from a backgrounding session given by chief counter-terrorist official and present critic of the Bush administration Richard A. Clarke. In January of 2003, the late Michael Kelley provided a typical account of this very “backgrounding” — putting forth administration policy on Saddam Hussein without disclosing the fact that Clarke was the one delivering the White House “talking points” — thus creating the impression that he once personally supported an administration line he now criticizes.

For in his position as “backgrounder,” Richard Clarke was serving as the most hallowed of the unnamed — “sources close to the White House.” Administration after administration has utilized this shadow vehicle (comparable to the black-clad retainers in Japan’s Bunraku puppet theater), the better to make statements that it won’t be interrogated on — for a willing press has exchanged its voice for the “get” of the story.

That is until the pathologically resentful Bush administration elected to burn the bridges of tradition, the better to strike back at a perceived enemy.

“We asked them to lift the rules, and for obvious reasons they did,” Jim Angle of Fox News has remarked of the imbroglio. And since the “rules” were “lifted” and precedent was broken, it therefore means that now all bets are off when it comes to attribution. Because of what the White House has done to “punish” a “disloyal” ex-employee, there is no reason whatsoever for a reporter to pledge confidentiality about anything. Lou Grant and Mary Richards would certainly agree that nothing less than complete candor and specified attribution will do.

After all, it’s part and parcel of “the public trust.”

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