Every once in a while I write about journalism ethics for my weekly column in The Denver Post. It usually brings thoughtful responses from readers.
When I wrote about the problems created by widespread use of anonymous sources in Washington, specifically as it related to columnist Robert Novak’s naming of a CIA undercover agent, a reader in another state suggested the leaking of the name might have been part of a plot to discredit President Bush.
“And since there is such a low probability of determining who leaked the information and for what reason, the controversy will always remain a scandalous blemish on the Bush Administration,” this reader wrote.
He clearly is pro-Bush, believing that the journalists who were leaked the information “may have innocently aided something I would say borders on treason, especially when so many lives are at stake and when the institutional security of our nation remains in transition.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it treason. After all, of the reporters who allegedly were leaked the scoop, only Novak, who could hardly be described as anti-Bush, made public the information he got from the leaker.
But it does show how a questionable custom – the regular use of unnamed sources – can produce a culture that is susceptible to manipulation and corrodes the credibility of everyone involved.
I’m plagiarizing myself here. Much of what follows comes from that column I wrote for The Denver Post.
I’ll concede that relying on anonymous sources is an unavoidable way of doing journalism in the nation’s capital. But if it’s true, as has been widely reported, that at least five other Washington journalists in addition to Novak were leaked the information about the CIA agent, they’ve allowed themselves to be maneuvered into an ethically insupportable position.
They allowed themselves to become a major part of an important news story. That is hardly in the journalistic tradition of at least trying to be objective and detached.
They knew the name of someone who probably committed a crime; it’s a felony to identify an undercover CIA agent. They knew whether that person was a high-ranking official of the Bush Administration, and whether the president himself might reasonably have known of a decision to leak the name.
But the reporters weren’t telling. They would not break a promise to a source. Nor should they. The real question is whether they should make the promise in the first place – or, more realistically, whether they should do it as often as they do in D.C.
“Whether they should maintain their silence – and whether they might be legally compelled to break it – lies at the heart of a burgeoning debate about media ethics and the whispered transactions with government officials that shape the daily flow of news and opinion,” The Washington Post said in a report about the implications of the leak.
Certainly, that’s what happens in Washington. Out here in flyover land, though, there’s a lot less whispering going on.
Outside of Washington, and other than in gossip columns and in getting tips for investigative stories, reporters in much of the country aren’t in the habit of regularly doing business with anonymous sources.
They don’t use the jargon of anonymity that is so common in Washington, of “highly placed” sources or sources “close to the president” and so on.
In Novak’s case, he said in a July 14 column that “two senior administration officials” told him that an outspoken Bush critic, a former diplomat who challenged the administration’s insistence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, was married to a CIA “operative.”
In addition to Novak, “reporters for NBC, Time and Newsday, among others, had similar conversations with administration officials,” The Washington Post reported.
Critics of that Post report suggest that the story was trying to show that someone in the administration was hoping to use the leaked information to punish the Clinton-era diplomat by intimidating his wife.
Whether or not that was the motive, it’s the sort of politics-by-innuendo and subterfuge that makes ordinary citizens think politicians are compulsive criminals.
That public perception is reinforced by the use of anonymous sources.
To be fair, it must be emphasized that in an environment such as Washington, where the stakes and the egos are enormous, important information never would become known if the leakers couldn’t leak without fear of reprisals. That’s why the culture of Washington journalism relies so heavily on anonymity.
But in the less furtive world outside of the capital of intrigue, anonymity is a disservice to the news audience or reader.
SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” It also says journalists should “always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.”
Of course, the controversy would end if Novak simply were to tell the president where he got the information. But that’s unlikely to happen.
This culture of leaking and anonymity and coyness about sources is not likely to change, either. But it’s as big a problem for media credibility as it is for the credibility of the politicians involved.
Fred Brown, co-chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com.