Anonymity, agendas stir trouble for media

October 09, 2005|By PAUL MOORE

Two recent news stories, both published the same day, illuminate a continuing debate about journalism ethics and the use of anonymous sources.

One described the release of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal the name of a source. It should have produced rejoicing in the journalism community. Miller's decision to go to jail - to defend journalists' right to protect their confidential sources - was championed by most of the media.

The fact that her Sept. 30 release did not generate an outpouring of good will partly reflects the growing unease of many journalists and readers about the use - and potential misuse - of anonymous sources in stories.

It also signals a widely held feeling that much of the media has been hijacked by government operatives using off-the-record interviews to further their own agendas.

In the other recent story, a Government Accountability Office report condemned the Bush administration for buying favorable news coverage for its education policies by making payments to a syndicated columnist and offering prepackaged, pseudo-news reports to television stations.

Miller was released after agreeing to testify before a grand jury investigating the leak of the name of a CIA operative. Miller said after testifying that she required a personal waiver from her source, I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Miller also said she received assurances from the federal prosecutor that the scope of her testimony would be limited to conversations with Libby.

Initial reports questioned why Miller was released only after long weeks in jail when the waiver from Libby allowing her to testify had been available for almost a year. Miller called those reports White House "spin" and said the personal and specific conditions of her waiver did not arrive until late last month.

"I did the only thing I could do," Miller said in Tuesday's New York Times. "I followed my conscience, and I tried to follow the principles that I laid out at the beginning."

Those principles are no less important now, three months after Miller was imprisoned. But today, more people are questioning the type of reporting and the motives of the source in cases like this.

An Oct. 2 Sun editorial said: "After a lengthy federal probe into the leak that outed a CIA operative married to a Bush administration critic, the two sources who emerge were top aides to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. That's par for the course in a town where the confidential, unnamed sources and tipsters behind so many news accounts of political or bureaucratic intrigue are aides to senior officials - or the officials themselves who hide behind anonymity to promote their own interests and undermine their opponents."

"Another conclusion from this case is that once again we are reminded that reporters grant confidentiality much too easily," said Gene Foreman, a longtime newspaper editor and now a professor at Penn State University's College of Communications.

A newspaper policy on when to grant confidentiality to sources is more important than ever.

The cornerstone of The Sun's practice for granting of anonymity is whether the source's financial, professional or physical well-being would be put in jeopardy if the person were named. The newspaper also insists that the information be of such importance that it is in the public's vital interest.

Judith Miller, who never wrote a word on the CIA case, went to jail for the best of reasons: refusing to reveal sources. For that she deserves every journalist's respect.

It is more difficult, however, to embrace the issue of confidentiality when the source - in this case more a political game player than a whistle-blower - probably did not deserve it.

More than ever, it is imperative that editors discuss with reporters how to limit offers of confidentiality to occasions when it is absolutely essential, and, if so, to insist that the reporter provide them with the name of the source. Otherwise, cozy relationships between some reporters and their sources will continue to have a corrosive effect on journalism.

The potential for corrosion and manipulation of the media has never been more apparent than in the GAO report, the first definitive ruling on the legality of "buying the news." The GAO said it was illegal for the Education Department to have a contract with conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, whose dissemination of administration policies in his columns was called "covert propaganda."

By condemning the connection with Williams and the production of a "video news release" - in which a narrator in the guise of a reporter says President Bush's remedial reading program "gets an A-plus" - the GAO made it clear that federal money cannot be used to produce or distribute a news story unless the government's role is openly acknowledged.

Making sure that anonymous sources do not get covert propaganda into stories is just as important for reporters and editors - who do not need a congressional report to make that crystal clear.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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