Monday, May 09, 2005
"Artful Leakers" and "Phantom Sources"
Are we going to see an end to reports that ascribe "unidentified source", "unnamed official"? Reading them one gets an image of a person whispering to an enterprising journalist, a bureaucrat making a call from a pay phone, or surreptitiously passing a note. Don't bet on it. The practice has developed legs of its own and is not going to disappear any time soon although The NY Times and other newspapers are taking a hard look at it.
Readers who follow the major dailies take position on both sides of the argument--those who would like to see the end of the practice and those who feel that without such protection the sources would "dry up" and important news stories would never appear in print.
Daniel Okrent of the Public Editor column in NY times (5/8/05) wrote under the heading "Briefers and Leakers and the Newspapers Who Enable Them".
Credibility is also why many reporters will now acknowledge that the profession's worst habits must be broken - the vague descriptions of phantom sources, the readiness to disregard their motivations, the willingness to let them say what they wish without public accountability. White House correspondent David E. Sanger, much of whose recent work has been in the extremely sensitive area of nuclear proliferation, told me, "In the post-Iraq world" - the world in which artful leakers convinced reporters and their readers that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction - "using identifiers like 'intelligence officials' or 'officials with access to intelligence' just doesn't hack it."
On a somewhat related issue, a blogger (Dilettante's Diary) wrote on April 10th about the broadcast media. She made cogent points about the lack of honesty that prevails in the industry, the unavoidable influence of the connection between corporate owners, advertisers and the government.
The bottom line is that free press isn't really "free". The Washington Times and Fox News Channel are like propaganda arms of the White House. Other venerable institutions such as The NY Times, Washington Post, CBS,NBC,ABC and CNN try to present "balanced" news and often end up serving pap. They have great reporters who are hamstrung. It is the system.
NY Times-Daniel Okrent