Democracy Dies in Darkness

Magazine | Perspective

Gene Weingarten: Has transparency killed the anonymous source? Nope.

September 6, 2018 at 9:00 AM

When I was a young reporter in Albany, N.Y., in the 1970s I used to fight with my sources about putting their quotes on the record. They wanted that. I didn’t.

This was the heyday of the anonymous source, and deploying it became a key status marker of the investigative journalist. You obviously were a swashbuckler if, like Woodward and Bernstein, you were able to persuade influential, powerful people to leak to you from the shadows. My conversations with sources sometimes went like this:

Surely you can take that off the record.

No need to.

Should I call you a “ senior administration official” or “a source close to the governor”?

You can call me Wally Rosenblatt. It is my name.

Work with me here, Wally!

All I am giving you is last month’s soybean yield.

The rush to hush-hush all began to change in the early 1980s, by which time newsroom leaders had tired of 21-year-old knuckleheads handing out anonymity like after-dinner mints, particularly after a few writers began to abuse this privilege by — this is the official term in journalism — “making [stuff] up.” (If no one actually said them, quotes can be really good.)

News organizations around the country publicly vowed to control the problem, even to the point of total elimination of anonymity. But this was nonsense. It was never any more likely to happen than when Reagan and Gorbachev yammered on about their supposed goal of eventually eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. There was no way they were ever going to give up the only tools they had that ensured the superpowers would never be at the mercy of rogue, two-bit mini-nuclear states whose leaders, during formal state occasions, dressed in pajamas.

Similarly, news organizations could not outright give up the single most powerful tool they had, a tool that had been a principal lock-picker for coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. So, they came up with an alternative plan: When granting anonymity, the writers would have to be completely transparent by informing the reader, in the story, of exactly why the source required anonymity: the extremely dire circumstances that justified this rarest of exceptions to the no-anonymity policy. Subject to this sort of transparency and scrutiny, the theory went, requests for anonymity would slow to a trickle until they withered and died of their own accord.

How useful has this transparency policy been? Roughly as useful as Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. Check it out:

In the past three months alone, the expressions “requested anonymity” and “on the condition of anonymity” have each appeared more than 3,000 times in American newspapers. A few recent real examples, and their published rationales:

About the impending death of Aretha Franklin: “It’s in God’s hands,” said one longtime friend, who requested anonymity because of the family’s wish for privacy. (Transparent version: This supersecret, jaw-dropping observation merits anonymity to protect the source’s right to ignore a grieving family’s final request.)

About Tiffany Trump’s appearance as a student at law school: “People were following her around with cameras, and it looked really uncomfortable,” said a student who attended the event and like most of Trump’s classmates requested anonymity to discuss a fellow student. (Transparent version: Dishing on a celeb is always protected speech.)

About a woman who says she was molested by her pastor: The counselor, who spoke with Ms. Baranowski’s permission, requested anonymity because she did not want to be part of the controversy. (Transparent version: She wanted anonymity because she wanted anonymity.)

And finally, this one, the best I have seen, the Moby-Dick of anonymity justifications:

For a story about nasty neighbors: “They even threatened us with death if we said something,” said one of the neighbors, who requested anonymity because the owner of the property, Vilma Núñez Peraza, left because of health problems, however, she gave her nephew legal power to …

It went on and on and on. Transparency!

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Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated.

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