USA Today Founding Editor Rejects Anonymous Sources

One resignation after another, reliance on anonymous sources continues to claim high-profile journalists.

Blamed by investigative judge Lord Brian Hutton for his network’s airing of  “unfounded” allegations, British Broadcasting Corporation Chairman Gavyn Davies resigned on Jan. 28 and chief executive Greg Dyke quit the next day. The charges – that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government had knowingly exaggerated intelligence regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – were reported by a BBC correspondent based on an interview with a single, then-anonymous source.

Hutton said the reporter’s own notes did not support his broadcast claims regarding the source’s accusation. The judge also criticized BBC news managers for ignoring one editor’s warning about the reporter’s “loose use of language.”

USA Today’s founder, Al Neuharth, could not have been surprised. Twelve days earlier Neuharth had reiterated his call “for journalists at all levels to ban all anonymous sources.” Why? Because, “until or unless we do, the public won’t trust us, and we put the First Amendment in jeopardy.”

Neuharth was commenting on the forced resignation of his paper’s star reporter, Jack Kelley – under suspicion for misuse of anonymous sources. In his “Plain talk” column (USA Today Forum, Jan. 16), Neuharth returned to the journalistic practice he blasted last May. Then, in a column headlined “How to detect lies in your newspaper,” he examined the fabrications of former New York Times’ reporter Jayson Blair. The Blair scandal led to the resignation of Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd.

Neuharth asserted that “anonymous sources, one key to Blair’s baloney in The Times, inevitably lead to lies. Here’s why: The anonymous source, if in fact one exists [emphasis added], generally is a coward who tells more than he or she knows. The reporter permitted to use such sources often writes more than he or she hears.

“The only sure way to separate fact from fiction is to ban all anonymous sources. If your newspaper uses them, be very, very skeptical.”

As Neuharth noted, reliance by American news media on unnamed sources “can be traced to the ’70s when The Times followed the example of The Washington Post in soliciting anonymous sources [for example, ‘Deep Throat’] during the Watergate era.”

Post Ombudsman Michael Getler replied to Neuharth’s May column, disagreeing with the proposed remedy but acknowledging the problem. “It is naive,” Getler wrote, “to think that very sensitive material can be ferreted out without sometimes allowing sources anonymity. But The Post’s guidelines call for reporters to make every effort to get the material on the record and failing that, to report the reason for not disclosing identities and to provide as much other information about identity and motivation [of anonymous sources] as possible.”

Unfortunately, Getler added, “my impression is that these rules have largely fallen by the wayside, along with demands by editors to know sources’ identities, because the use of unnamed sources has become so routine.”

Anonymous sources are a staple in coverage of diplomatic news. Vague descriptions including “Palestinian sources,” “Israeli authorities,” “European diplomats,” and “senior [American] administration officials” litter many such Arab-Israeli stories.

For example, The Post’s Dec. 5, 2003 story “Bush Says Peace Plan May Be ‘Productive’; Geneva Accord Already Denounced by Israel,” by Washington Post Staff Writer Glenn Kessler, quotes named sources 10 times, unnamed sources described as “U.S. officials,” “an administration official,” “sources,” and “some experts” six times, and asserts as fact opinion-laden statements on key issues without any attribution at all at least three times.

Kessler’s story is cited not because its use of unnamed sources is especially egregious, but rather because it is typical. The report’s concluding sentence reads: “Some experts [emphasis added] say those talks [Camp David in July 2000, Taba in January 2001] collapsed because neither side had done enough to educate their constituents about the parameters of a deal.”

This is Middle East revisionism. Nothing of the sort happened. Identifiable experts – long on the record – include chief U.S. negotiator Amb. Dennis Ross, and a top Israeli negotiator, former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami. According to them, when offered a Palestinian state on at least 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in exchange for peace with Israel, Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority refused and made no counter-offer.

As for “neither side” educating its constituents for peace – a requirement of the 1993 Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements – incessant anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish incitement by official PA sources has helped indoctrinate a whole generation of Palestinian terrorists. Examples are abundant and public. In contrast, on the Israeli side a peace curriculum was added to an education system that already encouraged tolerance. 

So what experts? What’s their motivation for the false claim, one that absolves the Palestinian side for its violent rejection of peace? Why not cite verifiable sources? Why did the reporter fall for propaganda? Why didn’t his editors catch it? What would a Lord Hutton, if not The Post’s Getler, say about such “loose use of language”?

Neuharth may have already said it. He wrote in his Jan. 16 column:

In 1982, when we founded USA Today, we effectively banned all anonymous sources. [But] as competition for readers and viewers and listeners and prizes from peers has become greater, more and more publishers and editors and broadcast managers have relaxed their rules. More and more reporters have taken advantage of that environment.

The Post certainly did in its first, news-breaking account of the rescue of U.S. Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch in Iraq last spring. Much of the rest of the American media quickly picked up and expanded the story of a wounded Lynch, heroically fighting to the last bullet and suffering gunshot and stab wounds in the process. A story that, as it turned out, was just that – a story, not news. Even then, as Post Ombudsman Getler allowed, the paper was sl ow to disavow its initial coverage.

Peter Y. Sussman, in “Rescuing Private Lynch – and rescuing journalism: the pressure for a compelling story can eclipse the actual news,” (Quill magazine, Nov. 1, 2003) writes that “most of the misinformation can be traced back to unnamed sources quoted in a Washington Post account” and including oft-cited “U.S. officials” and “sources.” Says Sussman, “to the extent that journalists strayed from their purely stenographic roles in their earliest stories of the rescue, it was to pass along vivid details from anonymous sources.”

Quill is published by the Society for Professional Journalists. SPJ’s voluntary Code of Ethics calls for, among other things, accountability. Reliance on unnamed sources compromises accountability and, as Sussman writes, bypasses “traditional journalism credibility tests.”

Neuharth agrees that the relaxed news room environment regarding use of anonymous sources comes with a credibility cost. Perhaps if news rooms enforced rules like those Ombudsman Getler says The Post idealizes, and which the Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics enunciates, anonymous sources could – sparingly used and corroborated by named sources – make important contributions to coverage.

Until then, as Neuharth warns, when newspaper, radio or television outlets rely on them, “be very, very skeptical.”

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