Message from Keith
I was asked recently by a friend here, who moonlights as a newspaper columnist, why the American press these days had become so reliant on anonymous sources in covering the Trump administration.
The implication of his question was obvious. Aren’t anonymous sources always suspect, particularly when there are named White House officials willing to go on the record to refute various accusations in the media? And isn’t all this high-level leaking dangerous for democracy?
I’ll admit to being conflicted about anonymous sources. Since trading my correspondent’s notepad for a teaching role, I’ve been drumming it into the students in my writing courses to steer clear of unnamed sources. Don’t let people hide behind anonymity, I intone. Always try to get a source on the record. If they refuse, ask yourself if the information can be obtained anywhere else. Named sources add credibility and authority to news stories.
And yet. Most of the big scoops involving President Trump have come from anonymous sources. And all of them have proven accurate, despite initial, vigorous denials from White House spokesmen. Trump’s testy phone call with the Australian prime minister was first reported by The Washington Post and other news outlets using unnamed sources and was denied by the White House—until Australian officials confirmed it took place. The Post also used anonymous sources to report that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had secret contacts with Russian officials and then lied about them. The White House denied it until Flynn was fired for those contacts.
The list goes on. Most recently, anonymous sources said Trump trashed the fired F.B.I. director James Comey as a “nut job,” and revealed secret Israeli intelligence to Russians in an Oval Office meeting. Again, it appears the reporting was spot on, based on the White House’s non-denials.
The point is that anonymous sources are now helping Washington reporters shine a spotlight on this ethically plagued administration. These scoops would not be possible without insiders surreptitiously leaking information about private phone calls and conversations—and the public would be poorer for not knowing. The administration wants to go after the leakers, mainly to stop the embarrassing drip, drip, drip of scandalous information.
I’m old enough to remember the Watergate saga that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency and how most of the Post’s reporting came from an anonymous source high up in the F.B.I. who was known only as “Deep Throat,” because he only spoke on deep background. Nixon, like Trump, was more concerned with plugging the damaging leaks than curtailing potential criminal activities in the White House.
People leak to reporters for a variety of reasons—internal rivalries, self-promotion and, sometimes, a desire to expose wrongdoing and do the right thing. Anonymous sources are essential for journalists to understand what is being hidden. I will still tell my students to get named sources on the record when they can. But in extreme cases—like now, in Washington—they will need to rely on people speaking off the record. They just better make sure their sources are right!