On the EDge: Anonymity rarely has its place

Composite image, St. George News

OPINION – I have never been a huge fan of news agencies using anonymous sources.

The fact that somebody would refuse to put a name behind a claim always raises red flags with me.

The search for truth is fraught with pitfalls because, as one longtime TV character used to say, “Everybody lies.”

Those who put together the daily news report have it drilled into them from an early age that, “if your mother says she loves you, get a second source.”

In the instance of off-the-record or anonymous information shared with a reporter, it is quite often not as difficult as one would imagine to verify a claim somebody is afraid to own.

But, there are times when the task is daunting. That’s when ethics and credibility come into play.

This becomes a matter of import now as we wait for more news to unfold regarding the source of an anonymous op-ed piece published by The New York Times plus testimony delivered in books by Michael Wolff, Omarosa Manigault Newman and Bob Woodward, all claiming turmoil and chaos in the White House.

There are fewer checks and balances when anonymous information is included in a book, leaving the credibility squarely in the lap of the author. However, when a legitimate news agency is involved, it is a much more difficult route.

In my previous job, I served as bureau chief and city editor at the local daily newspaper.

My standards for publishing anonymous information were as rigid as those employed by the large, metro newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other flagships of American journalism.

That was a responsibility I did not take lightly.

There was always the concern that the person giving the information had an agenda, for reasons of profit, power, retaliation or to shape popular opinion unfairly. A lot of people came to us with unfounded charges and claims that they would not stand behind publicly. They were always denied.

As a result, each request from my reporters to use anonymous quotes or information was vetted thoroughly and viewed suspiciously.

I needed to know where the information came from, why it was shared with us, the purpose in sharing the information and who could possibly gain from printing the information.

I needed to know who the person was, needed to speak with them personally and identify why they believed they could not put their name behind their story.

Usually, I could convince our source that having their name attached to the information was the best, most credible way to go.

There were, of course, rare instances when I could be convinced that their livelihood, even their life, could be in jeopardy if they went on the record. There were also times when I would not allow the information to be printed because it did not pass the sniff test.

But, I never had to deal with information that was attached to national security, such as the situation we are now facing.

I also fought voraciously against my newspaper’s misguided practice of allowing anonymous opinions to be published in our op-ed section each weekend. It was gutless, cowardly, unethical, irresponsible. It drew readers, but I believed then, as I do now, that it compromised our integrity.

Likewise, I am firmly against the practice of allowing screen names to be used in the comments section of the stories we publish here.

Whether the comments are pro or con, they should be taken lightly, regardless of how clever their fake name appears. I put my name behind every word I write, good, bad or indifferent. So should those who make their comments, whether antagonistic, supportive or, in some cases, contrarian because of a curmudgeonly personality trait. If you hide behind a fake name you have no credibility in my book and those comments carry little water.

I cannot say with certainty that if I was calling the shots at The New York Times that I would have published the anonymous op-ed piece that has hit the White House with hurricane force. There is simply not enough public information for me to come to a decision either way. The New York Times, however, is asking us to trust them and, if you listen to the populist voice, there is a degree of distrust.

In 2016, the newspaper tightened its guidelines for publishing anonymous material. In a policy memo to staff, editors Dean Baquet, Matt Purdy and Phil Corbett stated: “At best, granting anonymity allows us to reveal the atrocities of terror groups, government abuses or other situations where sources may risk their lives, freedom or careers by talking to us. In sensitive areas like national security reporting, it can be unavoidable. But in other cases, readers question whether anonymity allows unnamed people to skew a story in favor of their own agenda.”

Anonymity, they continued, should be “a last resort, for situations in which The Times could not otherwise publish information it considers newsworthy and reliable,” and “Material from anonymous sources should be ‘information,’ not just spin or speculation. It should be ‘newsworthy,’ not just color or embellishment. And it should be information we consider ‘reliable.’”

This could be an instance of government abuses.

This could be an instance of payback.

We won’t know for sure until the author is outed and, I am willing to bet, there are probably less than a handful of people who know who penned the devastating op-ed piece that claims the White House is in shambles and the president has become “unhinged,” something we outsiders are simply not privy to.

We can guess, we can speculate, but not a one of us has sat through a Cabinet meeting or been invited to the Oval Office.

We simply do not know.

Unless we have all of the facts, it is naïve at best, ignorant at worst, to make assumptions regarding the veracity of the op-ed piece because, without question, there are those with an ax to grind against the president as well as those who stand in lockstep support.

There are, however, a few things that cannot be denied.

First of all, the editorial was not, by any measure, treasonous despite the political bombast.

Second, it is not libel. The president is open to public discussion and criticism. Although the views expressed in this piece were unflattering, the president falls into a special legal niche and, therefore, malicious intent must be proven. While the editorial is highly critical, it falls within the rules of fair game as established by Supreme Court precedent.

Third, this is not a matter for the FBI or Department of Justice to investigate. To do so would infringe upon our First Amendment rights. The president cannot legally use any department of federal government to censure any individual or organization that challenges him, questions him, displeases him. We in the media do not serve at his pleasure and our right of free expression is not attached to political allegiance.

Finally, we may not get any clear-cut answers for quite some time.

It took 30 years to learn that former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt was the infamous Deep Throat, the source behind much of the reporting by Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the Watergate scandal. Only four people knew the identity of Deep Throat – Woodward, Bernstein, Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and, of course, Felt. As a matter of Utah political trivia, former Sen. Bob Bennett was, at one time, suspected of being Deep Throat.

It could be argued, rather successfully, that Felt made his disclosures to Woodward and Bernstein because he had been passed over twice by Richard Nixon to lead the FBI, even though he was considered a good and able replacement to the late J. Edgar Hoover. By today’s standards, I am not sure if Felt’s anonymity would be allowed.

Still, he was a good, reliable source for the two young reporters.

We cannot say the same about the op-ed piece in The New York Times until we learn who authored it.

And, that may take a long, long time.

Until then, it is simply a matter of trust.

And, that’s no small measure.

No bad days!

Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews, @EdKociela

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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11 Comments

  • Randy September 11, 2018 at 6:10 pm

    I’ll go on the record to say this is a great piece. To take the Times article at face value would be the easy way to support your particular point of view. To value journalistic integrity ahead of “being right” is downright honorable — and highly unusual nowadays.

    • mesaman September 11, 2018 at 8:45 pm

      I may be struck down for agreeing with Mr Ed but he is correct, despite the shielded jabs attempting to neutralize it’s potential.

      • bikeandfish September 12, 2018 at 10:45 am

        He and Hyde both devalue their own ideas by constantly inserting petty jabs and insults.

    • bikeandfish September 11, 2018 at 11:29 pm

      Support. The NYT Op Ed is a complicated beast for a democratic republic.

      Did find his jab entertaining. Anonymity has its valid purpose, even when it evades columnists.

      Sincerely, a user he once called a curmudgeon

  • Happy Commenter September 11, 2018 at 9:50 pm

    Ed wrote a piece about journalistic integrity and using truth and facts. Now all he has to do is start practicing what he preaches. I don’t really think that will ever happen though, he drinks way too much of that progressive punch. “No sober days, eddy!”

    • iceplant September 12, 2018 at 8:27 am

      Yep, that’s why Ed gets paid to do what he does.
      So you cornball keyboard warriors can sit on your duff and tell him you still don’t agree. LOL… hahahaaa!
      Ed lives in your head, rent-free, buddy.

      • Happy Commenter September 12, 2018 at 10:35 am

        not, veggie!

  • GregPainter September 12, 2018 at 9:10 am

    I read these opinions and comments often. I don’t like people hiding behind screen names. I feel they can’t be trusted.

    “Believe in something. Even it means sacrificing everything”

    • Red2Blue310 September 12, 2018 at 11:51 am

      Ok, GregPainter, lets all not hide behind screen names.

      • Lee Saunders September 12, 2018 at 2:48 pm

        So, is Red2Blue310 your real name? I would bet that GregPainter is more likely to be a real name than your screen tag.

  • Canaanite September 12, 2018 at 9:15 pm

    News agencies using anonymous sources means they lie.

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