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Don't use my name: The anonymity game

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; 12:15 PM

You've heard the pledges before: We're going to swear off the stuff, really we are. Or at least -- hic! -- reduce our consumption.

But journalists seem more addicted than ever to the elixir of anonymous sources. I'd be fine with unnamed sources who'd tell us what was really going on at the Minerals Management Agency while oil companies were allowed to write their own ticket with no real contingency plans. You know, people who might lose their jobs if they blew the whistle on wrongdoing -- the kind of folks for whom the shield of anonymity was intended.

For day-to-day political potshots, though, it's really become a kind of free pass: Here, say something snarky about someone who ticks you off and we'll publish it.

The latest example -- and this instantly hit the cable/talk radio circuit -- was the unnamed White House aide who took a swipe at the unions who backed Blanche Lincoln's primary opponent before her victory. "Organized labor," said the "senior White House official" who called Politico, "just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise."

Now you could say the White House ought to be above such pettiness. But if journalists simply said no -- no name, no blind quote -- such potshots wouldn't happen. Hey, if political antagonists want to poke each other in the eye, be my guest -- but don't depend on reporters to hide your identity.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald uses the incident to tee off on the D.C. press corps:

"Corruption and dishonesty are among the Washington vices which receive substantial attention, but cowardice is often overlooked, despite how pervasive it is. The news cycle of the last two days has been driven by an attack on organized labor from a 'senior White House official' who was willing to express these views only while hiding behind the fetal wall of anonymity extended by Politico. . . .

"That there is no remote journalistic justification for granting anonymity for these kinds of catty comments is self-evident, but that's not worth discussing, since the Drudgeified Politico has long ago established that they operate without any ethical constraints of any kind when it comes to such matters. The only anonymity standard Politico has is this: we grant it automatically the minute someone in power wants it (though on some level, in a warped sort of way, that's almost more admirable than what the NYT and Post do: pretend that they have strict anonymity standards while basically handing it out as promiscuously as Politico does).

"But what is striking is how often top White House officials -- who are among the most politically powerful people in the country -- are willing to inject views into the public discourse only if they can be assured that they will never be accountable for what they say. That is just unadulterated cowardice."

But some of us just make it too easy for them.

Separately, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander chastises the paper for excessive use of anonymity:

"Last month, a story about conflicts between parents and childless adults began with an anecdote about an unleashed puppy pestering a toddler in a District park. After the child's father complained, the dog's owner told The Post that parents of children can be 'tyrants' and she urged them to keep their kids inside the park's fenced-in play area. 'I think children are fine,' she was quoted as saying, but 'I don't think they own everything.'


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