Hooked on Anonymity

09/14/2005 08:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"The frustration throughout the week was getting good, reliable information," said the aide, who demanded anonymity so as not to be identified in disclosing inner workings of the White House. "Getting truth on the ground in New Orleans was very difficult."

From a New York Times piece September 10, 2005 by Elizabeth Bumiller on the White House decision to remove Michael Brown of FEMA from ongoing supervision of hurricane relief.

I’ve become hooked on the excuses the New York Times is providing for using anonymous sources. Of course, the Times doesn’t think of them as excuses – they think of them as motivations. “Whenever anonymity is granted, it should be the subject of energetic negotiation to arrive at phrasing that will tell the reader as much as possible about the placement and motivation of the source” -- this is from the new set of Times standards instituted after the Jayson Blair fiasco two years ago.

Allan M. Siegal, the Standards Editor at the Times, whose position was created After Blair, gave an interview a couple of weeks ago to the Public Editor at the Times. In it, Siegal elaborated further on the question of anonymity, and said that he spends part of each day randomly vetting the next day’s stories for anonymous sources and occasionally calling editors to ask about them. Last Saturday, when a motive for anonymity failed to appear in Elizabeth Bumiller’s story about the White House decision to remove Michael Brown – and then turned up inserted in the article in subsequent editions (as quoted above) -- I amused myself imagining the last-minute phone call and “energetic negotiation” that were probably involved. It reminded me of my days as a reporter writing profiles at the New York Post. The then-owner of the Post, Dorothy Schiff, was obsessed with mixed marriages, and every time a profile of a Jewish man who’d married a gentile woman was about to appear, she would phone the editor and demand we call the interview subject to find out what religion his children were being raised as, and whether actual Bar Mitzvahs were going to be involved. We were constantly having to scramble at the last minute to reach the person we were profiling, and to explain -- mortified -- why we were calling.

My own feeling about the Times’ policy is that it’s misguided and naïve and will someday make a fine chapter in a book about this era of transparency we’re currently enduring. Where the notion of transparency originated is a mystery to me, but I first recall seeing the word in a mea culpa the Times issued at the time of the Blair episode. I was puzzled that anyone could possibly believe that a corporation, much less a newspaper, could possibly benefit in any way from making its process visible. My own experience at newspapers – and I will grant that the New York Post in the l960s was a peculiar place -- was that much of what the editors did consisted of sending reporters to journalistic Siberia, which at the Post involved writing about dead people or the Board of Education.

Enough nostalgia. Here’s the point: anonymous sources are never going to admit the truth about why they prefer to be anonymous. They are never going to say, the reason I’m willing to be your anonymous source is that I’m in a power struggle with the person I’m giving you information about. They are never going to say, I’m willing to talk to you about Fred (but don’t use my name) because he slept with my ex-wife. They’re never going to say, the reason I’m talking to you off the record is that I’m a malicious gossip and have nothing better to do. They’re never going to say, I’m talking to you on background in the hopes of convincing you that my version of events is true, although it probably isn’t. Or, I’m talking to you on background because I’m essentially shilling for the President, but if I make the quote anonymous it will sound as if I’ve told you something top secret. They’re certainly never going to say (as Ahmad Chalabi ought to have when he spent so many years being the most effective anonymous source since Deep Throat), I’m talking to you on condition of anonymity because I hope to plant false information about weapons of mass destruction in your very powerful newspaper in order to con the United States government into going to war against Saddam Hussein so I can return to Iraq and become part of the new government and steal a whole bunch more money than I already have.

And by the way, sources aren’t the only people who opt for anonymity. Reporters, especially beat reporters, often have only a few reliable sources, whom they use day after day. One traditional way of cultivating them is to keep their names out of the newspapers. No one with a job likes to be known as a reliable source. And no reporter likes it known that he has only a few sources. What’s more, anonymity protects the reporter from losing his reliable source to other bird-dogging reporters.

Of course, it’s s possible that the pendulum will swing back, and the Times – and some of the other national publications that have followed suit -- will give all this up and go back to being the delightfully opaque places they used to be. But in the meantime, the odd thing about this policy is that it almost seems to have the opposite effect that’s intended. Since sources are never really going to admit their true motives for wanting to remain anonymous, they will lie. They will lie because the New York Times is going to persuade them to lie, urge them to lie, enable them to lie, demand they lie, and furthermore even negotiate the lie. And then the New York Times is going to print the lie and call it a motivation. But it’s not a motivation. At best, it’s an excuse -- a bland, misleading excuse. But it’s nowhere near the whole truth.