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Playing Washington's anonymous-source game

A high State Department official -- let's call him Gladhorn Hadley -- escorts a journalist into his office and, motioning to a chair, starts the conversation with ``This is all on background, I take it?'' The reporter assents. The next day the published story quotes ``a senior administration official'' as the source of the information.

Mr. Hadley is not named. Nor is the department for which he works. But the public now has an inkling that the United States is preparing a major diplomatic move in a key area of the globe.

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This scene and variants of it are played out thousands of times a day in Congress, the White House, the Pentagon and other Cabinet departments.

To many in the news business, anonymous sourcing is a much-overplayed game. To others, it is a legitimate part of the process of getting information to the public.

While readers may learn something they did not know from a story with unnamed sources, they must often wonder about such puzzling phrases as ``says a high official who refused to be named'' or ``according to informed sources'' or ``knowledgeable sources state that'' or ``it was learned that.''

Why aren't these sources named? Why don't they wish to be identified? There is a variety of reasons.

Sometimes officials float trial balloons to spark public reaction. Other times they wish to air differences of opinion in the bureaucracy and promote support for a given view.

Often they're avoiding taking limelight from political superiors. Frequently they seek to avoid the potential embarrassment of speaking candidly or to give themselves an out. This enables them to deny a story if it proves inaccurate.

In the diplomatic and national-security fields, US officials are especially sensitive to making ``on the record'' statements that might be misconstrued by or cause problems for a foreign government.

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Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state, fooled no one when his words were cited as those of a ``senior US official'' as he shuttled around the Middle East. This euphemism enabled him to talk with reporters -- and shape press coverage -- without irretrievably committing himself or offending parties to the negotiation.

To some, this smacks of manipulation of the press. But government officials tend to defend the practice of unnamed sourcing, while acknowledging the risks.

``In an ideal world everything would be on the record and no diplomat would be embarrassed by any statement,'' says George Vest, director general of the Foreign Service and former US ambassador to the European Community.

``But diplomacy means you operate in a kind of halfway house. There are times when you would like to educate people about the underlying facts. At the same time you don't wish to embarrass your own government because you're saying things that are not entirely happy for everyone, especially a government you're doing business with,'' Mr. Vest says.

Many reporters and editors, however, feel the system of nonattribution is grossly abused, that much of what is said ``off the record'' could just as easily be said ``on the record.''

Editors often press journalists to try to pin down the names of sources and at least identify them as to agency or department. The news wire services, in particular, have tightened their rules and, by and large, name sources.

``The idea of spelling out government policy in some detail and putting the whole thing `on background' is a misuse of that device,'' says James Wieghart, a columnist for Scripps-Howard Newspapers. ``People are dumping trial balloons on us and using the cloak of anonymity to escape retaliation and accountability,'' Mr. Wieghart says. ``Journalists ought to question in detail whether to accept such anonymity.''

Washington reporters are especially critical of the practice in so-called ``background briefings,'' at which officials explain policy and answer questions without allowing reporters to identify them. Usually background briefings are ``flotation devices that give overcautious officials a chance to put out the party line without being held accountable for what they say,'' writes Lou Cannon, the Washington Post's White House correspondent.

Even when such briefings are helpful, says Mr. Cannon, anonymity is often unnecessary.

``Why should a newspaper reader receive an official's anonymous defense of the Strategic Defense Initiative when the same official is going to cover the same ground on television the next day?'' he asks.

Comments Mr. Wieghart: ``I remember few briefing sessions that could not have been on the record.''

At the same time the value of talking with insiders on a nonattribution basis is generally acknowledged. Reporters often glean information not otherwise obtainable. They may get insights into how policy is made that enable them to put an event or an issue in better perspective.

``To get unnamed sources to talk about motives, about context of policies, and so on is a legitimate part of the news enterprise,'' says Michael J. Robinson, a news-media expert at George Washington University. ``It is clearly a part of the democratic political process, and I see nothing going on that is outside the bounds of responsible journalism or that is detrimental.''

Reporters themselves are ambivalent, decrying abuse of the system but heavily relying on it to flesh out a story and analyze the news.

``I'm in favor of it, because it's more important to get the information to the people than to have it attributed to someone,'' remarks William Ringle, national correspondent for Gannett News Service. ``It's good to name people when you can press them into it. But the realities are that the poor guys in the civil service who reveal what's really going on are penalized.''

The best sources for background and other information are usually not the prominent officials at the top of a hierarchy, who tend to appear on on-the-record television programs, but lower-level officials and staff members.

``Such top-level officials seldom provide reporters with better information privately than they do on the record,'' writes media specialist Martha Kumar in her book, ``Portraying the President.''

``Consequently, although reporters like to interview them because of their proximity to the throne, they get more substantive information from officials at the second or middle level.''

Though unnamed sourcing can often serve the public, it has pitfalls. Press integrity, for instance, is dangerously eroded when reporters make up sources and quotations. That does sometimes happen and, if discovered, says Dr. Robinson, an editor should make sure the guilty reporter is fired.

The more frequent hazard, he suggests, is that reporters may be ``so seduced by unnamed sourcing they think more about that than about getting the facts.''

That is definitely on the record.

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