“The fact is, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi six weeks ago was telling us, ‘I have what it takes to impeach the president,’ " said Portland, Ore., radio host Lars Larson to Fox News host Harris Faulkner during Thursday’s edition of “Outnumbered Overtime.” "And now we’re saying, we’re investigating to find out if there’s anything there that justifies impeachment and the more we learn about it, about [name of alleged whistleblower] and his attorney who said ‘the coup begins now’ and the fact that we’re hearing things second- and third- and fourth-hand.”
With that, a guest on Fox News — not a paid contributor or a staff correspondent — stepped onto the Ukraine scandal’s journo-ethical ledge. The whistleblower’s allegations against President Trump emerged in late September and, ever since, newsrooms have debated whether to name the person, if indeed they could verify his or her identity. Early in this drama, a Bloomberg News official wrote a memo to colleagues indicating that either The Post or the New York Times would “probably” break the news of the person’s identity.
Nope. The big dogs are approaching the whistleblower-identity question with considerable forbearance. As Paul Farhi reported in The Post, countervailing considerations — that publishing the name would put the person in jeopardy; that the whistleblower’s account has been corroborated by others — have persuaded news bosses to stand pat. "I’m not convinced his identity is important at this point, or at least important enough to put him at any risk, or to unmask someone who doesn’t want to be identified,” New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told Farhi. Back in September, Baquet and Co. sustained a Twitter backlash when they reported some details about the whistleblower’s career on the grounds that the information helped the public to assess credibility.
And yet Larson waltzes right onto the Fox News airwaves and blurts out a name anyway. A Fox News spokesperson issued this statement to the Erik Wemple Blog: “Fox News has not confirmed or independently verified the name of the whistleblower.” Larson’s commentary placed Fox News alone among the major TV news outlets, as CNN, MSNBC, NBC News, ABC News and CBS News haven’t recited a name, according to the Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr.
As the transcript above makes clear, Larson didn’t make a big deal of the whistleblower’s alleged name. In fact, he mentioned it almost in passing, as just one building block of an argument he was mounting about the Ukraine situation. “I did not think of this as controversial,” Larson told the Erik Wemple Blog, noting that Donald Trump Jr. “has tweeted this out, it’s been on Drudge, it’s been everywhere except the mainstream media.”
Which is to say that Larson didn’t verify for himself the whistleblower’s name. “Do I have any sources 2,000 miles from here on Capitol Hill?” says Larson, who earned a slew of awards as a TV journalist before embarking on a career in talk radio. “No, I don’t.”
Asked what report on the whistleblower’s name he found most credible, Larson pointed to the oft-cited tweet from Wednesday by Donald Trump Jr. “That was the last report that I saw and other than that, nothing specific,” says Larson. The tweet from Trump Jr., for the sake of context, linked to a Breitbart story, which in turn relied upon a previous story by Real Clear Investigations mentioning the name of a government official whose record fit the “description” in mainstream media accounts. Furthermore, Real Clear Investigations noted that the name “has been raised privately in impeachment depositions, according to officials with direct knowledge of the proceedings, as well as in at least one open hearing held by a House committee not involved in the impeachment inquiry.”
Mark S. Zaid, a lawyer for the whistleblower, told the Erik Wemple Blog that confirmation of the identity is a tough feat because there are so few people in a position to know. “When I see, ‘Three people have confirmed that the whistleblower is so-and-so,’ that is garbage. I guarantee you that there are no three sources who guarantee it’s so and so. It’s double and triple hearsay,” says Zaid, noting that he’s heard at least five names floated. “Obviously one name now has taken prominence and people are just pushing forward. . . It seems no one cares if it is or not. It’s not ironic that the Richard Jewell film is about to come out,” he says.
In an op-ed for The Post on Oct. 25, Zaid and Andrew P. Bakaj, another of the whistleblower’s lawyers, argued that a raft of supporting evidence stemming from the impeachment inquiry rendered the person’s identity no longer “relevant." “Much of what has been disclosed since the release of our client’s complaint actually exceeds the whistleblower’s knowledge of what transpired at the time the complaint was submitted,” wrote the lawyers. “Because our client has no additional information about the president’s call, there is no justification for exposing their identity and all the risks that would follow.”
Surely the supporting evidence reduces the centrality of the whistleblower in this national saga. Yet the complaint from the whistleblower launched all this activity, making the person’s background nothing if not newsworthy. Had the whistleblower approached the New York Times or The Post or CNN with the Ukraine allegations, reporters most assuredly would have granted anonymity. No such obligation applies in this case. In a statement for The Post, Kris Coratti, vice president for communications, said the newspaper “has long respected the right of whistleblowers to report wrongdoing in confidence, which protects them against retaliation. We also withhold identities or other facts when we believe that publication would put an individual at risk. Both of those considerations apply in this case.”
As for the personal-risk consideration, we asked Zaid whether he had reported any threats to the FBI. Yes, he responded — three of them. “Any physical harm the individual and/or their family suffers as a result of disclosure means that the individuals and publications reporting such names will be personally liable for that harm. Such behavior is at the pinnacle of irresponsibility and is intentionally reckless," the lawyers said in a statement.