Can anonymous sources

Jayson BlairThere’s a few journalists who read this blog. I have a question — were you or were you not taught that you should

  • use anonymous sources judiciously and rarely;
  • use anonymous sources only when other methods for gathering the same information are unavailable;
  • use anonymous sources only for factual information, not for opinion, conjecture, observation or speculation;
  • always question the motivation of sources who don’t want to be identified;
  • never use information from an anonymous source unless it can be verified by a second source.

I was. Not only was I taught that in college. I was taught that in HIGH SCHOOL, for gawd’s sake!

As I’ve watched this whole Jayson Blair scandal unfold, I can only conclude that this basic journalistic guideline was not followed nor enforced by NYT editors. There were numerous points of failure by the Times in its oversight of Blair, but when Howell Raines protests that the newspaper isn’t really set up to catch serial fabricators, I want to remind him that making sure reporters adhere to basic journalistic standards is a good way to begin.

It’s a lesson a number of large and prestigious newspapers need to learn. The use of anonymous sources has become an epidemic.

Think back to the lead up to the war and all of the stories about what the U.S. military was going to do or not do — shock and awe, build up here, build up there, attack in November, attack in Febuary, etc. All of those stories were based almost entirely on unnamed sources.

Now, ask yourself this — is a professional military man ever going to give away the battle plan to some Washington Post reporter?

If these sources were even real, I can think of only three plausible reasons a Pentagon official would want to be an unnamed source in such a story:

  • Use the media to spread disinformation and confuse the enemy.
  • Undermine the political standing of a rival.
  • Puff up one’s own ego by cozying up to a big-time reporter.

I’m dismissing out of hand as plausible any reason that might suggest magnanimity of spirit or altruism. A person possessing military secrets with a real concern about the well being of our troops or the prospects of victory, no matter his political doubts about the cause, would never discuss war plans with a reporter, on or off the record. Setting aside, then, the implausible, we have to ask: Why trust any unnamed source motivated by deception, ambition or ego?

Yet, if the basic rules of using anonymous sources were followed, none of the war plan stories, nor many of the “quagmire” stories that made print during the war, ever would have been published.

It’s not that I’m against these stories per se, because such stories can impart important information to the great national debate, but unless the stories are credible they are worse than meaningless, they are downright harmful. And stories sourced by people who have less than pure motivates, and sourced by people who are not double checked, and sourced by people who engage in conjecture and speculation under the cover anonymity, lack even a shred of credibility.

Yet, such stories see print in major newspapers every day.

I wish somebody like Howard Kurtz, or better yet Howell Raines or Leonard Downie Jr, would read this post, because I would really like to ask them one question: Why have your papers abandoned basic journalistic standards in favor of the sensational stories anonymous sources give you?

I blog, therefore I am

Corporate co-worker Eric Janssen is co-conspirator in a great group (and great looking) blog called webraw.

He’s written a thoughtful essay on how blogs are killing media gatekeepers. We’re all gatekeepers now, seems to be the bottom line. Bloggers, and I think this is true, filter our lives now through our bloggy lens. Everything is a potential blog post. And as we blog, we are voting on what’s worthy for other people to know about, just like real media types. Of course, I would add, some bloggers are bigger gatekeepers than others.

Where I’ve been hiding …

town and country hotelThe theme of our weekend trip to San Diego was food. Billie and I had a nice romantic dinner at Kelley’s Steakhouse on Thursday, dinner with my parents Friday, dinner with her parents Saturday, and big breakfasts Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I haven’t eaten that much food in a long time.

The primary purpose of the trip was to attend a new media conference at Paradise Point, but since the weekend coincided with Mothers’ Day, we wound up doing a lot of eating.

On Thursday we stayed at the Town and Country. We got to stay there because my company was paying. I chose the Town and Country because I’ve always thought it looked like a neat hotel, with its ranch-style courtyard rooms, ’60s chic styling and central location in Mission Valley. Besides, both Billie and I have known the hotel’s general manager for years. We got to know him as reporters for the San Diego Business Journal (when Billie took a leave of absence from the SDBJ, I took over her tourism beat).

So the first thing we did after we checked in was give Duke Sobek a call. It was good to talk to him. He’s a heck of a nice guy.

One thing I remembered about Duke was that he had a son who played baseball. Randy Sobek, like Jim Abbott, has the functional use of only one arm, but he’s a good athlete. Duke updated me on Randy’s collegiate career. He’s a sophomore at Whittier College, where he went 5-1 this year with a 2.57 ERA. Keep an eye on the LAT for a story about Randy.

Friday was also an eventful day highlighted by running into another person I haven’t talked to in a long while.

Near the end of our dinner with my parents and grandmother at the Brigantine, Billie leaned over to me and said, “I know the guy in that booth from somewhere, but I can’t place him.” Well, one glance, and I knew who it was. I fairly jumped out of my chair, “My God, it’s Doug Brunk!”

Doug and I went to college together. We were on the college paper together. We were part of a trio (with Keith Finley) who spoke to each other primarily in MASH dialog (“Soldier, I want you out of that dress tonight!” “Not for you or any other man alive.”) Later, Doug and I shared a shithole apartment on El Cajon Blvd. He was an usher in my wedding.

And my wedding is the last time I saw him. Shortly after that, he moved to New York, and by the time he moved back to San Diego, I was in Ventura, and we lost contact with each other.

So, now, we’re in contact again and vowing not to let another 10 years go by without getting together for a visit.

As for the new media conference, I picked up an award for our Lewis and Clark site (which I didn’t work on at all) and sat through one very good session on e-mail newsletters. I got to visit with some industry buddies and, of course, ate some damn good food (nice lunch, free sweets).