Tim Rutten enters the fray between the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times over the worthiness of stories that recently won Pulitzers. Rutten is more interested in the politics. I’m more interested in the journalism. Rutten quotes Times’ editor Bill Keller:
“I leave to others, including the court of public opinion,” he wrote, to decide “whether the government officials who spoke to reporters about secrets that troubled them were partisan evildoers, as the Journal contends, or conscientious public servants, or something more complicated. Since most of them, including the nearly dozen who were cited in the first warrantless eavesdropping story, have not been publicly identified, it’s hard to know how the Journal is so certain of their motives.
In his own words, Keller admits the chief flaw with these stories — we don’t know who the sources are and we cannot possibly judge their motivations. Without knowing their motivations, we can’t possibly judge the merits of their assertions.
In today’s world, the journalistic attitude of “just trust us” is no longer good enough. Reporters must get their sources to go on the record, or verify their information through public documents or alternative, on-the-record sources. Certainly, anonymous sources should never be used as a sole-source of information, and anonymous sources should never be allowed to speculate or hold forth with opinion. Too much of this kind of reporting comes out of New York and Washington. If Keller is going to allow reporters to produced anonymous sourced stories, then he hasn’t a leg to stand on when it comes to defending those stories against attack.