Unnamed sources: anonymity and Beltway bloviating

My, my, oh my. Things have really changed in Washington. Now a fired FBI director admits under oath that he leaked sensitive documents to an intermediary to give to a reporter. Wow. Novel. Amazing.

And standard operating procedure in Washington D.C.

Anonymous sources are the lifeblood of reporters who aspire to the “Hallway of Heroes,” where great reporters reside. You know, Woodward, Bernstein and Morley Safer, rest his soul.


Though often cautioned against promising anonymity to sources, many journalists are walking on the dark side. Liz Spayd, public editor for the New York Times, writes in a February 2017 article:

This is what journalism should be — enterprising, essential and intent on grasping what’s well beyond reach. Not just storifying early-dawn tweets from the president or wailing from the press secretary’s podium, but taking seriously the public service function of the media. There was something else notable about these stories. All of them relied heavily — some entirely — on a reporting tactic many readers despise: the use of anonymous sources.

Well, that’s certainly not stopping the Times, Washington Post or hundreds of other media outlets from using secret sources to get to the bottom of the story. Many leakers live in fear of reprisal, retribution or downright retaliation. But some know how to use a leak to their advantage. James Comey knew if he quietly and anonymously gave his notes to a friend and asked him to give the scribbled ledger to the Paper of Record (NYT), he may be able to force changes in the investigation and get a special investigator.


But, when you dig into the meat of the ethics, you find less motivational material. Here’s what the Society of Professional Journalists says about anonymous sources:

Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens. But sometimes, anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp.

Well-put and woefully understated. Washington has always had deceits, cover-ups and leaks more plentiful than those lining the floor of an animal shelter on a Saturday.

In public relations, we have a very useful saying: “If you don’t want it ‘out there,’ don’t say it.” Too often, offhanded comments end up on the front page of the Daily Beacon or home page of BuzzFeed.

Just look at this statement supposedly said by the Commander In Chief: Mike Flynn, he’s a good guy and I hope you see fit to give him a break. If you notice, I’m not putting this in quotes. Hell, I don’t know if it was said or not. What I do know is it is creating a firestorm of bad PR and causing a big gob of taxpayer money to go into further hearings and investigations.

While these types of controversies sell papers and earn viewers, the fact remains that we really don’t know what was said. Or meant. It appears that only two people know. And, let’s be frank, we may never know.

Anonymous sources will continue to be used even though a leak-caused controversy will generate a search for the secret source and hunt for a culprit. Reporters will be threatened with jail over concealed sources. Lives may be ruined.

Welcome to Washington. And the rest of the free world.

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