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We Need More Anonymous Sources, Not Fewer

If the corporate media want viewers and readers to hold them in higher regard, they need to start doing real reporting again, and making aggressive use of anonymous sources who can point them to where there is corruption and abuse of power. The alternative is a media that just purveys press handouts. -----------------

The voluntary outing of Mark Felt as the "Deep Throat" of Watergate fame puts into relief the current White House's cynical attack on journalists' use of anonymous sources. Without Felt, the Washington Post's investigation of the Nixon White House would have died away, Nixon would likely have finished his second term, and we probably would never have learned about COINTELPRO.

The Felt story also should shame the corporate media, which has been caving in to this White House pressure, with the announcement of new stricter rules and promises to limit the use of such sources in the future at many news organizations.

As an investigative reporter who has made frequent use of anonymous sources throughout my career, let me put it bluntly--if Americans want a press that functions even minimally as a watchdog on corruption and abuse of power, they'd better get comfortable with anonymous sources. Toss them over the side and the news will be little more than official press releases (about what it has become, as a matter of fact).

Nixon lovers, like Pat Buchanan, the late dark lord's former speechwriter, are blasting Felt, saying if he the erstwhile number two man at the FBI had evidence of illegal behavior by the White House he should have reported it to the Justice Department or to his boss, not to a reporter.

Excuse me, but is Buchanan expecting us to seriously believe that Attorney General John Mitchell, or FBI Director Patrick Gray, both later convicted of being feloniously involved in the cover-up of Nixon's crimes, would have done anything with such information besides sacking Felt and burying his story? Well, that and destroying his reputation?

That, after all, is what the Nixon administration MO was. Remember the Nixon "Enemies List"? If someone was seen as a threat, like Daniel Ellsberg for example, he went on the list. Then you broke into his psychiatrist's office and looked for damaging evidence to leak to the public. Or you sent some of that secret army of dirty tricksters--an army that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein say one source tallied at 50, but which a source I know--an anonymous source who was one of them--says numbered in the hundreds--and you messed them up somehow.

We see the same thing happening today, of course. This administration is at least as vicious as the Nixon White House was at destroying its enemies. Just look at the Valerie Plame outing case.

If anything, the cowardly corporate media, which can't even bring itself to report openly on the damning memorandum to British PM Tony Blair detailing in 2002 how the Bush administration planned to "fix" the evidence about terror links and WMDs to create a pretext for an invasion of Iraq, needs to round up more anonymous sources to report honestly about this most devious and corrupt of governments.

Just for an example, when I was breaking the story (in Counterpunch, Salon and Mother Jones) about the device under President Bush's jacket during the three presidential debates--all on the basis of named sources, I should note--there clearly were Washington reporters from all the major news organizations with sources inside the White House and the Republican National Campaign committee who could have taken the story further. Instead, they all ran with lame denials from the White House and the Bush/Cheney campaign that the prominent lump on the president's back was a "wrinkle" in a "badly tailored" suit or shirt. The only news organization that even tried to do a genuine investigation of the bulge story, the New York Times, killed it on the eve of publication (allegedly because it was too close to the election, but then of course they never went back to it after the election).

"The New York Times can't say the president is lying," Elizabeth Bumiller famously said at a public forum on covering the campaign. I'm sure that journalists and editors at the other major news outlets, print and electronic, would say the same thing if they were honest. How far we have come from the early 1970s, when a young Dan Rather could imply just such a thing at a presidential press conference.

The reason the public has such a low opinion of the media today is not that the media use anonymous sources. It's because the media don't tell the truth. The reading and viewing public are savvy enough about advertising and marketing to recognize that most of what they're getting in the "news hole" is just more of the same--official handouts from corporations and government officials, carefully packaged reports aimed at supporting advertisers, and entertainment filler.

If the media gave them red meat, in the form of hard-hitting investigative reports that looked at what government is really doing, how the war in Iraq is really going and how we got there in the first place, what is really happening to the environment, and how we are all being gouged by a tax system that gives away the store to the rich and corporations, you can bet they'd have a higher opinion of them, even if many of those stories relied on unnamed sources.

I'm not saying reporters should take shortcuts and not even try to get sources to go on the record, but let's face it--you cannot expect people with knowledge about wrongdoing to put their jobs and lives in jeopardy just to get a story out. If you want to know about those things--many of which can be life-and-death matters of public interest --you've got to accept that the information will be provided by an anonymous source.

The Bush White House knows this, and that's why it is coming down so hard on stories that use such sources.

For the rest of this column and other stories by Lindorff, please go (at no charge) to This Can't Be Happening! .

homepage: homepage: http://www.thiscantbehappening.net

pushing the right buttons 03.Jun.2005 07:05

history check

thanks!

Where are they today? 03.Jun.2005 08:35

gk

Where are any anonymous sources today? If they would come forward (without showing any identity), the investigative reporters could really have some true stories! We need them desperately. I can't blame reporters, who could risk their job and lives, unless they have backup people. I want the truth revealed on 9-11 and the Iraq war! Isn't an opportunity for (eventual) fame a big enticement to the writers, the source, and the publications?

The problem is the media and the legal/political institutions 03.Jun.2005 13:49

The Anti-Spook

The reason the criminals in high places were brought down in Watergate while the much worse criminals who allowed 911 to happen and used it as a false pretext for invading Iraq are getting away with it so far, is that law enforcement investigated Watergate, and brought the case before judges, John Sirica primarily, who wouldn't let the Administration get away with it.Likewise, Democrats with spine like Senator Sam Ervin and Congressman Peter Rodino controlled subcommittees with subpoena power and investigative authority, and they used it.The media did its job too, refusing to be intimidated by Nixon's official and unofficial defenders.All of that emboldened anonymous sources, like Deep Throat, and defectors from inside the criminal administration, like John Dean.

The problem is not with the sources.There are just as many potential sources and whistleblowers in the current situation, Sibel Edmonds, Behrooz Sarshar, Karen Kwiatkowski, Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill, to name a few.But so far no one comparable to John Dean - an insider with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the criminal conspiracy - has come forward.However in Watergate the cat was already halfway out of the bag by the time Dean came clean, while in the present case anyone who goes beyond the mildest sort of criticism of President Bush is immediately dismissed and pilloried as a 'conspiracy theorist', or worse, by the mainstream press and the Washington establishment.

Because the Republicans have ever since the Reagan administration been stuffing the DC circuit courts with Judges who are Republican political operatives, the potentially explosive whistleblower Sibel Edmonds is gagged by a judge who is undoubtedly taking orders from the Administration.The potentially even more explosive Sarshar is probably waiting to see what happens to Sibel's case before he goes public.Because of the docility of the American mainstream press, castrated and intimidated by decades of bullying from the Rush Limbaughs, the minions of Reverend Moon, Rupert Murdoch and AIPAC, the right wing 'think tanks', the the voices of the arms and oil industries who masquerade on TV as "terrorism experts" or "military analysts", few Americans even recognize Sibel Edmond's name, while Sarshar is totally unheard of, and an important story like the recent Downing Street memo, which in itself could provide the basis for the impeachment of Bush, is buried in the back pages of the major papers and after one day disappeared from TV news coverage.

Immediately after Watergate the Republicans (and conservative Democrats like Senator Scoop Jackson) in political office, in the military, in the "intelligence community", in industries related to the military and oil, began working on devising a concerted strategy for preventing the recurrence of scandals like Watergate by creating right wing radio and ending the Fairness Doctrine, using dirty money from Reverend Moon to create the Washington Times, inviting conservative media moguls like Rupert Murdoch to monopolize large segments of the press and broadcast media, by creating or enlarging think tanks like Heritage, AEI, and many others, creating media watchdogs like Fairness and Accuracy in Media, advocacy groups like the Independent Womens' Forum, among many, many others, all of them well-funded.The activities of all those groups are coordinated by the Republican elite around the Bushes, and when there is a potentially serious threat, they can all be activated to eliminate it.That machine was partially successful in stopping the Iran-Contra scandal, and almost entirely successful in neutralizing the damage Iran-Contra should have done to Reagan/Bush.The right wing machine was totally successful in smothering investigations of the 1980 October Surprise, Contra cocaine, BNL, and Desert Storm, and during the Clinton years the defensive apparatus became an attack machine, manufacturing scandals like Whitewater, Travelgate, Troopergate, Filegate etc., out of nearly whole cloth.

The reluctance of sources and witnesses to come forward is only one symtom of a fatal illness in the American political system.

lot more to this story than the surface one about Nixon, much bigger plan... 03.Jun.2005 13:52

Deep Toad

"The voluntary outing of Mark Felt as the "Deep Throat" of Watergate fame puts into relief the current White House's cynical attack on journalists' use of anonymous sources. Without Felt, the Washington Post's investigation of the Nixon White House would have died away,"....

Wellllllllllllllll...thanks for the post, I couldn't agree more. However, Deep Throat was a bit more complicated, and on that, read "Deep Toad" comments here:  http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2005/06/318539.shtml

"Wait, now let me finish, ARF!" 03.Jun.2005 14:30

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Who is His Master's Voice?
Who is His Master's Voice?

Good Stuff 03.Jun.2005 16:22

Anon

Just more good stuff.