December 14, 2012

Politico has long relied on anonymous sources, often with good results. A 2011 story on sexually inappropriate behavior by then-Republican presidential Herman Cain bootstrapped many unnamed sources. And the reporting bore out.

Another high-profile report, this one on Vice President Biden’s having allegedly likened tea partiers to terrorists, drew from multiple anonymous sources. It, too, bore out, though there’s some debate on that topic.

In each of those felicitous cases, Politico was securing basic information from its sources. Building blocks for stories.

For a contrast, sample the first three paragraphs of the story that led Politico’s web site yesterday around midday:

Back-bench freshmen Justin Amash, Tim Huelskamp and David Schweikert are gaining martyr status among conservative activists after they were “purged” from House committees for what they say is a matter of sticking to their principles on tough votes.

But some of their colleagues say the trio got yanked by the leadership-driven Republican Steering Committee because they’re jerks — or worse.

In an interview with Politico, one member of the Steering Committee called them “the most egregious ___holes” in the House Republican Conference.

Bolded text added to highlight a swear word that Politico printed in full but that the Erik Wemple Blog may not repeat in this space. (Also, this blog edited the reference to “Politico” in the Politico story by dropping its standard, in-house ALL-CAPS iteration to regular text).

This post, though, isn’t about copy-editing and standards of taste; it’s about reporting.

Politico, under Jonathan Allen’s byline, allowed a House member to anonymously tar other members with a common expletive. Fun times, right? Yes, for those who want to allow news outlets to become unaccountable platforms for insults hurled by cowards.

The practice wouldn’t fly in many a-Politico places. The Washington Post, for instance, has a plainspoken prohibition on such usage: “We should not publish ad hominem quotations from unnamed sources. Sources who want to take a shot at someone in our columns should do so in their own names.”

New York Times Associate Managing Editor for Standards Philip B. Corbett passes along these reservations:

Our stylebook and other guidelines caution against letting a source hide behind anonymity to launch personal attacks. Of course, it’s hard to generalize or set an absolute rule. Describing political disputes, for example, might at times require anonymous sources to bring to light battles that are going on behind the scenes. But a basic judgment about fairness should lead us to be careful if someone is taking personal shots with a cloak of anonymity.

There’s more, too. The Associated Press has promulgated these restrictions on the use of anonymous sources:

The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.

Now: Some people in Washington are so prickly, so nasty, so self-important that calling them [plural expletive] nearly qualifies as an assertion of fact, not “opinion or speculation.” That said, there are powerful reasons why standards writers have deplored personal attacks from behind fortified positions:

1) Corroboration: As the rules above suggest, anonymous stuff works best when it can be confirmed via other sources or subsequent events. How does this work in the case of an anonymous allegation that someone is an “—hole”? Do we have to wait for the alleged “—hole” to say something surly?

2) Fairness: If opponents can use anonymity to insult someone, shouldn’t that person’s supporters get the same footing to praise that person? And how insane would that sound? “So and so is a fabulous person,” said a fan who declined to speak on the record with favorable comments.

3) Lameness: No matter the highfalutin justifications for disallowing anonymous mudslinging, it simply feels wrong.

Politico Executive Editor Jim VandeHei has declined to comment on its standards relating to expletives and personal, anonymous attacks. And although Politico allows — encourages! — its people to post fast-moving blog items and to spout off on all kinds of cable and radio outlets, it stops them from responding to inquiries from media critics.
So we’ll have to guess at what Politico was thinking.

Perhaps it feels that the “egregious” modifier denotes an extreme sense of disgust with these “purged” lawmakers. Or perhaps Politico thinks it has cover with this particular case: After all, the word has gotten some pretty steady rotation on Capitol Hill of late. In an earlier story on the matter, Roll Call reported that Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) cited an “___hole” factor in explaining to lawmakers why the three congressmen were removed from committee posts. And Allen’s piece itself manages to get the word on the record, too, via this quote from Leslie Shedd, Westmoreland’s spokeswoman:

“He said that it had nothing to do with their voting record, a scorecard, or their actions across the street [meaning fundraising]. It had to do with their inability to work with other members, which some people might refer to as the [___hole] factor.”

Does the fact that “—hole” is in the Capitol Hill ether give Politico a stronger footing for its anonymously based smear? No — the opposite, actually. When you already have on-the-record use of this nastiness, why not elevate the standard for publishing it through the mouth of some malcontent? The only result is to direct Politico’s credibility toward insulting duly elected officials. Oh, and stirring the usual bout of speculation as to who on the steering committee used this term in a chat with Politico.

“People have been asking us, ‘Is this your boss?’ ” says Shedd, referring to the anonymous steering-committee source cited in the Politico story. It is not, she says.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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