Daily Archives: October 25, 2005

Here, reproduced in full is a letter to Romenesko:

Just say no to anonymous quotes 10/25/2005 3:45:35 PM

From EDWARD HUMES: “Let’s be honest about what’s really at stake in the Judy Miller saga: An entire culture of anonymity has evolved in daily journalism (mostly, but not exclusively, in Washington) that has absolutely nothing to do with the high-minded protection of whistle blowers, First Amendment rights and the ability to ferret out government malfeasance that Miller and her supporters cite. It is a culture, not just one reporter, run amok. If this were about protecting whistle blowers, there would have been no subpoenas of Miller or Cooper in the first place. There were subpoenas because our journalistic culture of anonymity is mostly about protecting the powerful these days, protecting the Libbys and Roves of the world, so that they can spin the facts (or in the case of WMDs in Iraq, the fictions) in ways they would never dare to do publicly. And this is what we are supposed to fight to protect? This is the ground on which we are drawing our First Amendment line in the sand? The journalistic equivalent of irresponsibly shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded theater? I call Bullshit.

It is this culture of anonymity, not the subpoena-wielding special prosecutors of the world, that poses the most serious danger imaginable to our First Amendment rights and our credibility as journalists. The culture of anonymity empowers political figures and hacks to lie, slander and abuse the public trust with impunity. The culture of anonymity empowers journalists with political agendas or penchants for laziness to generate front-page stories without going the extra mile to get the stories on the record, to verify the sources, or to reveal the motives of those sources or the credibility of their information. The culture of anonymity encouraged the New York Times to defend Judy Miller blindly, proving the old saw that bad facts make bad law — pushing these sorts of highly questionable cases (in which Miller is, bottom line, a crime witness) is the surest way possible to generate unfavorable court rulings and thereby undermine our ability to protect legitimate anonymous sources in important stories. And what’s the bottom line result of the journalistic culture of anonymity? It brought us Iraq WMDs, Wen Ho Lee, Richard Jewell, Whitewater and an endless parade of front-page “revelations” that turned out not only to be bogus, but to have had enormous negative impacts on individuals and nations — shouting Fire! when there is no fire.

Yes, we should go to the mat to protect anonymous sources who really are whistle-blowers, who really are helping us ferret out government malfeasance, who really are allowing us to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But in today’s journalistic reality, sadly, such genuinely important and vulnerable anonymous sources probably appear in a bare one tenth of one percent of the anonymously sourced stories published and broadcast every day. You cannot pick up the Post, the Times, the LAT or any other major paper without finding anonymous sources on the front page, every day, usually many times a day. How many of those stories are protecting the little guy with an important story to reveal that serves the public interest? And how many are just spinning away in a culture of anonymity run amok?

Here’s an idea for our national and Washington reporters: Next time some spin-meister gives you a great anonymous quote, just say no. If we adopted a policy forcing these guys go to on the record except in extraordinary cases, things would change. For the better.”