Anonymous Sources Bring Down a Senator
By Cheryl Reid
Cheryl Reid a reporter for the Daily World in Aberdeen, Washington.
When the Seattle Times published its stunning report March 1 on allegations of sexual misconduct by Sen. Brock Adams, it sparked debate among journalists and outrage among legislators for its use of unnamed sources. But Executive Editor Michael Fancher says there has been tremendous support from colleagues for the "difficult" position the Times took.
The copyrighted articles told the stories of eight unnamed women who charged Adams with abuse ranging from sexual harassment to rape over the past 20 years. The day the articles appeared, Adams dropped his bid for reelection, saying the stories "horrified" him. "That was not me. That was created out of whole cloth by people who hate me," he told a Seattle news conference. For many, the shock of the allegations was matched by the shock that a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper would print them without also running the names of the accusers.
Fancher says his paper "didn't have any choice" but to print the charges. Though he admits he would have liked to use the women's names, "the choice we faced was no story or this story," he says.
Some observers question both the wisdom and the motive of the paper's top editors.
Adams supporters have long claimed that the Times has run a steady campaign against the senator, asserting that the Times is very conservative and just never liked the liberal Democrat. But the Times is probably much more liberal-leaning than most critics with long memories would believe; one indication is its 1988 endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
In any event, Fancher bristles at such accusations. "This newspaper has never been out to get Brock Adams," Fancher says.
But the editor concedes that some of the perceived animosity toward Adams was generated by the Times staff. Some reporters were uncomfortable when the paper printed allegations 3 1/2 years ago by former House committee aide Kari Tupper, who said Adams had drugged and molested her at his home in Washington, D.C. Some of those reporters told Adams staffers they disagreed with the paper's decision to run the story.
Critics say the timing – just as Adams was gearing up his reelection campaign – supports the vendetta theory. But Fancher says the paper ran the story as soon as it had it, because he believes voters have a right to know about the charges.
The Times first heard about some of the abuse charges when the Tupper story broke. Adams vehemently denied Tupper's claims, and the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, finding insufficient evidence, did not prosecute. But while Adams said Tupper had fabricated the story in an effort to extort money, women quietly began contacting the Times and other media outlets to say they, too, had experienced abuse by the senator, Fancher says.
But without names, the paper decided it couldn't print a story.
Then, at a staff meeting in November called to discuss the mission of the newspaper, Fancher said, "People believe the Seattle Times because it tells the truth." That's when City Editor Dave Boardman thought, "We know the truth in the Brock Adams story and we haven't published it,' " Fancher recalls. Boardman decided to give the story one more shot. He and reporters Susan Gilmore, Eric Nalder and Eric Pryne made a renewed push to get the women's stories on the record and corroborate them.
But the women still refused to be named. In early February Managing Editor Alex MacLeod told the team to write the story.
During the next three weeks, the team came up with the idea of having the women sign statements agreeing to testify if the paper is sued. Without the statements, the story wouldn't have run, Fancher says.
Ben Bagdikian, dean emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, says he thinks the Times made the right decision. He says though it's not his favorite practice, some stories have to be told by using unnamed sources.
The Times took some hits for doing so, including a bashing March 1 on "This Week with David Brinkley" from syndicated columnist George Will and former New York Times columnist Tom Wicker. But Fancher dismisses the early criticism, attributing it to a lack of information about how extensive and well-documented the Times report was. "Once people really understood how and why we published the story they concluded that we acted responsibly."
On March 6 a New York Times editorial said the Seattle Times did the right thing; on March 16 Time called the Seattle Times pieces "textbook examples of meticulous, convincing journalism."
And if other editors don't agree with the Times' decision, it's OK, Fancher says. "Our primary mission in life is to serve our readers, not to impress other journalists out there." ###