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Friday, June 13, 2003
Sources at Jumping To Conclusions said...
I think anybody with an IQ above his shoe size could figure out that I don't agree with The Nation much. But when they're right, they're right. In a column by Russ Baker criticizing the New York Times' Judith Miller for what he believes to be overly credulous reporting of Pentagon claims, he writes:
Jayson Blair used the cover of unidentified sources to make things up. Miller allows sources to hide their identities in order to advance a self-serving agenda. Using unnamed sources is a common and necessary technique in journalism. But sources should not be allowed to remain unnamed when the information they are imparting serves to directly advance their own and their employers' objectives. In other words, a reporter needs a very good justification for not naming a source--usually because a source is saying something that could get him or her in big trouble with some powerful entity. But what kind of trouble could befall some unnamed Pentagon source who is leaking material in accord with the objectives of the current Administration? The principal motive for remaining under cover in such circumstances, besides preserving deniability, is to gain greater currency for the leaked material, as something that has received the imprimatur of our internationally recognized "newspaper of record," the New York Times.
Citing anonymous sources should be a rare exception, not standard operating procedure. When a reporter cites a real person, he's saying, "Trust me. I spoke to this person." While the Jayson Blair scandal shows that this is hardly an ironclad guarantee, it does provide an opportunity for (a) the quoted source to rebut the claim if untrue, and (b) the reader to decide for himself how much credence to give to the statement. When a reporter cites an anonymous source, he's saying, "Trust me. I really spoke to someone who said this, and that person fits the description I gave him. And I haven't misquoted him. And I've evaluated his credibility, and I've decided that it's sufficient to justify the story. He's not mistaken or lying and he has no personal agenda."

Well, that's just a little too much for me to take on faith. I know what Paul Wolfowitz thinks, so if he's quoted, I can decide what it means. I don't know what a "Pentagon source" thinks or wants. I don't know if he's trying to float a trial balloon or stir up dissent or if he's a genuine whistleblower. But I can see with my own eyes that most "officials" aren't saying anything worth keeping secret, and if they're not willing to say it openly, then the reporter should just work a little harder to get someone who will.

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