In 1999, WorldNetDaily editor Joseph Farah criticized the use of anonymous sources -- as done in a profile several years earlier by the Columbia Journalism Review on Farah's tenure as editor of the now-defunct Sacramento Union -- as "usually quotes made up out of whole cloth to help make the story read better."
Such an attitude has never prevented Farah from banning anonymous sources at WND. In fact, they're not only used in much the same manner he criticized a decade ago, their use has expanded -- even granting anonymity to terrorists.
WND's penchant for anonymity goes way back -- for instance, a 2002 article featured an anonymous "former White House veterinarian" asserting that the Clintons didn't treat their pets very well while in office. The election of Barack Obama to the presidency, however, has resulted in an explosion of anonymous claims being hurled in WND articles:
-- An April 18 article promoting Farah's G2 Bulletin, "the premium, online intelligence newsletter edited by the founder of WND," asserted that Obama employed "restrictive rules of engagement that actually hampered the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips and extended the drama at sea for days." The article cited anonymous yet purportedly "reliable military sources close to the scene" to back up the claim, which is otherwise unsubstantiated.
-- A July 30 article by Joe Kovacs touted an anonymous YouTube video claiming that the Bible depicts Obama as the Antichrist. Kovacs even interviewed the video-maker, claiming that he "spoke to WND under condition of anonymity out of concern for members of his local church." Kovacs didn't explain why, if the person's scholarship was solid (which it wasn't), he had anything to fear from "his local church."
-- A July 29 article touted a video -- like the Antichrist video, anonymously posted on YouTube -- purporting to demonstrate "how easy it is to fake" a Hawaiian certificate of live birth, like the one Obama has presented. But the video contains a major factual error, claiming that "there's not even a hint of a [raised] seal" on the certificate released by the Obama campaign. In fact, it contains a raised seal. WND made no mention of this error.
-- When WND promoted a document claimed to be a "Kenyan birth certificate" for Obama, it it stated that Orly Taitz, the birther attorney who WND has long been fawning over despite increasing concerns about her legal work, "told WND that the document came from an anonymous source who doesn't want his name known because 'he's afraid for his life.'" WND made no apparent effort to find the source of the certificate, even after it concluded that it was a forgery.
-- An Aug. 9 WND article promoted a story in the Globe supermarket tabloid "proclaiming Barack Obama's 'official birth document' a fake and suggesting the president may actually have been born in Canada." The article added that the Globe "also cites WND's reporting about the changing stories about the hospital in which Obama was born." According to WND, the Globe cited "reports by unnamed document analysts" for its claim. That would seem to make WND's reporting on par with that of supermarket tabloids. Most legitimate news organizations would be embarrassed by such a comparison; WND apparently is not. (Indeed, the ConWeb denounces the tabloids when they report on Republicans but embrace them when they report on Democrats.)
Another way WND hurls smears without accountability is by quoting anonymous commenters who are purported to have written to WND. For instance, in an Aug. 5 article dedicated to spreading the falsehood that a White House email address set up to collect reports of misinformation being spread about President Obama's health-care reform plan is a "snitch" program that collects data on people, Bob Unruh included the following:
Bloggers and readers were livid.
Wrote one observer to WND, "In my life I never thought I'd see this happen in America. What are they going to do with the information they get?? Pure terrorism."
Added another, "Why wait for a snitch to turn your name in, when you do it yourself and save them the trouble. It only makes sense."
A third reader simply sent a link to an online history resource that cited the use of informants during the prelude to World War II.
Unruh offered no explanation as to why these particular responses were chosen, why they were granted anonymity, or if they were an accurate representation of public opinion on the issue. After all -- as former newspaper editor Farah should very well know -- newspapers do not publish anonymous letters to the editor. Nor does WND explain why anonymous comments, a lower grade of commentary because no one is accountable for it, should be given a privileged place in a bylined "news" story.
Earlier this year, Farah defended his Jerusalem bureau chief, Aaron Klein, by asserting, "Aaron Klein doesn't use anonymous sources when he quotes senior terrorist leaders in Gaza and many of the most prominent Islamists in the world. He names names." That, of course, is a complete and utter lie -- Klein makes copious use of anonymous sources, even more so than the rest of WND, and terrorists are among them.
Klein has repeating anonymous claims since at least March 2006, when he alleged that an investigation of alleged "multiple charges of corruption and illegal appointments" by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was "being delayed until after next week's elections in which Olmert is running for top office." There are no on-the-record quotes in the article at all; Klein cited "a source close to the report" and "a spokesman for the Likud party," which stood to benefit from Klein's attack on Olmert, a member of the rival Kadima party. Klein has a long history of animus toward Olmert and fealty toward the right-wing Likud.
There has been a recent surge in anonymous source use by Klein, mostly to attack Obama.
A June 9 article by Klein quoted "a senior aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu" -- a member of the Likud party Klein likes so much -- in claiming that Obama has been "putting the screws" on Israel as part of a larger strategy of enhancing U.S. ties with the Arab world. Klein referenced a previous article that contained no on-the-record sources making a similar claim -- just "a source in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government" and "sources in Netanyahu's camp."
A June 16 article by Klein began ominously: "Former President Jimmy Carter passed a message to Hamas from the Obama administration, according to senior sources in the Islamist group." But the very next paragraph makes it clear there's no there there:
The sources did not disclose the content of the purported message or whether the communication was written or oral. They spoke on condition of anonymity, because they said Hamas had not yet reached a decision on officially releasing the information they were divulging.
Klein can't prove there's a message or even corroborate it with a source who is willing to go on the record. He then demolishes the rest of the big assertion, through an actual named source, that Jimmy Carter passed the seemingly imaginary message along:
Separately, in an interview with WND today, Ahmed Yousef, Hamas' chief political adviser in Gaza, refused to confirm or deny that any message was passed to his group from the White House.
Yousef said, however, Carter was the "right person" to serve as a middle man between Hamas and the Obama administration.
To sum up: Klein can't demonstrate that a message even exists, let alone that Jimmy Carter passed one along. But, if there were a message, Carter is the kind of guy who might have had it.
In a June 30 article, Klein purported to quote a "top minister in the Israeli government"as saying that "It seems there is a coordinated assault between the U.S. and some European countries to remove Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his party and to replace them with the Kadima party." But the minister is anonymous ("due to possible political fallout from his comments," Klein claimed) and, by Klein's own admission, "does not have any proof of possible U.S.-European collusion to influence the composition of the Israeli government."
In a July 19 article in which not a single person he cites has a name, Klein cited:
-- "a top official from Syria's Information Ministry"
-- a "U.S. official"
-- "other diplomatic sources"
-- a "senior U.S. official"
-- a "senior Middle East diplomatic source"
Not only are none of these people named, Klein offers no explanation for why he granted them anonymity. The article was a follow-up of a July 14 article in which Klein also failed to quote anyone on the record.
A July 31 Klein article claimed that U.S.-trained Palestinian police forces "couldn't even secure a few stages at a music festival - marking the latest in a series of largely unreported, massive failures of the new elite police unit of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah organization." Klein cited the following as sources of information and quotes:
-- "One Fatah militant"
-- "An Israeli security source"
-- "An Israeli security official"
-- "informed security sources"
-- "security officials"
-- "a security official"
Again, there are no named sources in his article.
An Aug. 26 article by Klein referenced even more unnamed "Israeli and Palestinian officials" to assert that "Headlines declaring President Obama is close to a Mideast peace deal are overly optimistic." Klein cited:
-- "One Palestinian official"
-- "an official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bureau"
-- "multiple Middle Eastern diplomatic sources"
In an Aug. 5 WorldNetDaily article -- provocatively headlined "Obama's spies monitoring Jews house-to-house" -- Klein asserted: "The Obama administration has set up an apparatus to closely monitor Jewish construction in Jerusalem and the strategic West Bank to the point of watching Israeli moves house-to-house in certain key neighborhoods." His source? "informed Israeli officials," who "spoke on condition that their names be withheld."
The only person Klein names in relation to the charge is David Ha'ivri, "spokesmen [sic] for the Shomron Regional Council in the West Bank." But Ha'ivri is much more than a "spokesman" -- as ConWebWatch has detailed, he's a follower of Israeli extremist Meir Kahane and sympathizer of the Kahane-inspired (and outlawed) far-right Israeli political party Kach/Kahane Chai.
In other words, Ha'ivri is not exactly an unbiased source, though Klein has repeated featured his comments several times over the years (while hiding his extremist background). And Klein otherwise has no evidence from anyone on the record, which makes his claim meaningless until proven otherwise.
A Sept. 22 article by Klein hid behind anonymous sources to accuse the Obama administration of lobbying "to ensure against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu working with pro-Israel members of Congress in an attempt to ease White House pressure against the Jewish state." Klein's article contained no named sources, referring only to anonymous "senior Palestinian officials."
(Klein went on to identify the group J Street "a far-leftist Mideast activist organization." By contrast, in a June 2008 WND article, Klein identified J Street's right-wing counterpart, the right-leaning American Israel Public Affairs Committee, without an ideological tag, describing it only as "influential." Klein also claimed that J Street "has been accused of anti-Israel activity" but refuses to elaborate. In fact, it's pretty much only right-wingers who have made that claim.)
More troubling than Klein's frequent use of anonymous sources, though, is his habit of granting anonymity to those most of us (including Klein himself) consider terrorists. A July 2008 article claimed that "Members of the most active West Bank terror organization are set to serve in security forces being deployed to protect Sen. Barack Obama during his trip to the West Bank." Klein's source: Members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who were "speaking to WND on condition of anonymity."
In a Feb. 11 article, Klein admitted the person who was "speaking on condition of anonymity" to him was "a senior terrorist." (Is that what's on his business card?)
Klein wrote in an April 17 article that Obama would move to create a Palestinian state "more quickly than anybody could imagine," citing only an anonymous "chief PA negotiator" as his lone source. At no point does Klein explain why he has granted anonymity to the negotiator, whom, by definition as a Palestinian, is a terrorist in Klein's eyes.
Klein provided anonymity to terrorists once again in an Oct. 2 article quoting "U.S.-trained Palestinian gunmen" as claiming that their training "will likely be utilized in the not too distant future to kill Israelis." Klein wrote: "The pardoned gunmen agreed to speak on condition their names be withheld and that WND does not print the name of the city in which the meeting took place, citing concerns over their current jobs in the PA's U.S.-backed security forces." Why is Klein so eager to protect the identity of people who have declared that they plan to kill people? He doesn't explain.
It seems that to Klein, building and keeping his contacts -- however murderous they may be -- are more important than saving the lives of people from the anonymous terrorists he interviews.
WND's penchant for anonymity extends to its own anti-Obama activism. When ConWebWatch contacted WND earlier this year to ask whether it would act in the "spirit of disclosure" and disclose the donors to its campaign to erect billboards across the country asking, "Where's the Birth Certificate?" Farah responded:
Our demand on Obama has nothing to do with a "spirit of disclosure," though Obama has pledged to run the most open and transparent administration in American history. The Constitution requires a president to be a natural born citizen. That same Constitution also provides that ordinary American citizens the right to spend their money any way they want without fear of harassment from government officials.
If you need any more civics lesson, please feel free to call on me.
WND similarly failed to disclose the donors to its legal defense fund regarding the libel lawsuit it faced over a series of articles it published in 2000 designed to smear Al Gore. (WND abruptly settled the lawsuit shortly before it was to go to trial in 2008, in part by admitting that it published numerous false claims about an associate of Gore, Clark Jones.)
Many news organizations have policies regarding the use of anonymous sources -- the New York Times, for instance, states that they should be used only as "a last resort when the story is of compelling public interest and the information is not available any other way" and discourages personal or partisan attacks from being made behind a mask of anonymity (though it has trouble living up to it). Those same news organizations tend to fret over whether anonymous sources are being overused.
WND has not made its policy governing anonymous sources public -- or indicated if it even has one. (Surely, granting anonymity to terrorists has got to violate something.) But then, WND routinely violates journalistic ethics by publishing lies and failing to disclose conflicts of interest. Why would it behave any more ethically regarding anonymous sources?
(This article was originally published at ConWebWatch.)