When the Post Banned Anonymous Sources
By Ben H. Bagdikian
Longtime media critic Ben H. Bagdikian’s latest book is “The New Media Monopoly.”
After Newsweek retracted its story that American guards at Guantánamo had thrown a copy of the Quran into a toilet, the magazine was buffeted by criticism. In particular, the magazine was chastised for relying on a single unnamed source. The episode reignited the long-running debate over the use of anonymous sources.
More than 30 years ago, shortly before Watergate, the Washington Post tried to do something about them. Ben Bradlee, then the paper's executive editor, decided that the Post would no longer publish information from unnamed sources. Bradlee was a high-energy competitor who hated to be beaten on a story. But he was also an innovator.
The experiment was understandable. It came during the Nixon administration, a turbulent era that witnessed all the pitfalls of namelessness, including high officials flimflamming the news media. Henry Kissinger, at the time Nixon's chief foreign policy adviser, was adept at giving one group of reporters an "inside tip" on an anonymous basis; an hour later, in his oracular voice, enhanced by his carefully preserved Germanic accent, he would say something entirely different to a favored reporter. When it came to the Post, other Nixon officials often made life difficult for the paper's reporters, sometimes hiding behind the label "an unnamed source" when releasing a statement of dubious truth.
Finally, Bradlee had had enough. He announced the "no more unnamed sources" policy to the newsroom. From now on, when an official said, "This briefing is for background only," meaning the information couldn't be attributed to a named source, Post reporters were to walk out. Or if a Cabinet officer said, "This will have to be off the record" – meaning it couldn't be used at all – Post reporters were to say politely that they were not allowed to listen.
Most of the national reporters were convinced that the experiment wouldn't succeed (I was the Post's assistant managing editor for national news at the time). Many were old hands used to working with top officials in their field – Cabinet and sub-Cabinet employees, agency chiefs, representatives, senators, congressional staffers (a rich source of inside information).
Our chief Pentagon correspondent, George Wilson, was one of the skeptics. A reporter who did meticulous homework, he knew so much about the military and was so wired that he was often the only Pentagon correspondent to learn of a crucial story. But often he'd have to attribute it simply to "a source."
The national reporters thought that the sheer mass of information revealed by officials who protected themselves with anonymity constituted too large a portion of daily front-page news for the policy to survive. They turned out to be right.
Murrey Marder, one of our diplomatic correspondents, told me recently that during the noble experiment a fellow diplomatic reporter announced at a background briefing that he couldn't take anything from an unnamed source. He walked out of the room. But nobody followed him. Post reporters felt hamstrung by the policy and made their feelings known.
And so the experiment turned out to be a dismal failure. The Post's competitors, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, published important news stories that the Post did not have. The paper's readers were deprived of significant information. For a fierce competitor like Bradlee, that was intolerable.
The experiment ended after two days.
There is a fundamental reason why a ban on unnamed sources is impractical. That anonymity is granted far too frequently is abundantly clear. But there are times when using anonymous sources makes sense. Whistleblowers who report misdeeds or illegal activity by their companies or agencies face retaliation if they do so on the record. They could be demoted, fired or worse.
Then there are the leakers, men and women relatively high in the hierarchy who are in a position to know crucial information. They may leak information to a trusted journalist because they believe it is in the public interest to shed light on misguided policies and actions. That was the case of the recently unmasked Deep Throat, former Deputy FBI Director W. Mark Felt, who helped Bob Woodward unravel the Watergate conspiracy.
Even presidents don't hesitate to leak. If an international conference is not going well for the U.S. position, a leaked news story is often the weapon of choice to put pressure on a recalcitrant foreign leader. The most famous presidential leak was on the eve of Pearl Harbor, when President Franklin Roosevelt knew that the official Japanese "peace" delegation with whom he and Secretary of State Cordell Hull were dealing was a sham. Roosevelt leaked the danger to the New York Times; the paper reported that high officials believed peace negotiations were going nowhere and the Japanese might attack the United States at any time. Roosevelt's tip to the Times was a historic demonstration of the Washington aphorism, "The ship of state is the only vessel that leaks from the top."
As the Post experiment suggests, unnamed sources will not be vanishing anytime soon. They serve too many purposes for both the news media and officialdom. But with luck, the latest controversy could have a salutary effect if it slows down another compulsion of the news media, the race for a scoop, which has caused too many phony stories from unnamed and nonexistent sources. The remedy is for a news organization to go beyond the quick hit and do its own digging, lessening its dependence on unnamed sources in government.