What They Are Leaking: New Times Tic Says More About Media Than Sources

Ever since news organizations became queasy about the use of unnamed sources—the legions of lesser Deep Throats who fuel the free press as we know it—The New York Times has acquired an odd, awkward new affectation, a self-conscious journalistic tic that pops up in news reports when an anonymous source is cited. In what is apparently an explanatory (could it be exculpatory?) urge, The Times now often adds the reason why the source requested that his or her identity not be disclosed.

Justifications offered recently by Times sources seeking journalistic cover run the gamut from apparently honorable to unintentionally funny (or, in some cases, both). So, for instance, in last Sunday’s Times, we read a detailed account of the state of negotiations in Baghdad over the Iraqi constitution, and the complex behind-the-scenes role played by Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador. The report was attributed to “a Kurdish negotiator who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the delicacy of the talks.” In the Monday paper, the news that a deal was agonizingly close was provided, along with many particulars, by an “American official, who, because of the diplomatic delicacy, spoke on condition of anonymity.” We are, of course, pleased to have the information public, but left to wonder how exactly the delicacy of the talks was safeguarded by all this anonymous airing. The writer, Dexter Filkins, seemed at pains to demonstrate, at least, that there was equal-opportunity leaking.

In another head-scratcher, a couple of weeks ago in a piece about an internal report at NASA that had been critical of the way the insulating foam was applied to the Space Shuttle’s fuel tanks, we were treated to the following aside: “The person who provided it to The Times did so on condition of anonymity, saying he had not been authorized to read it.”

Huh? Naturally, we are doubly grateful that the source not only purloined the memo but shared the purloined copy. We love whistle-blowers. Still, we can’t help suspecting that we’re being spun, to deflect blame from all the good NASA employees who were authorized to read it, and hence in a position to leak it.

The idea that the bits of rationalization proffered here help readers evaluate the credibility of the information at issue is dubious, but they do offer a window into the convoluted ethical and strategic calculations of covert leakers—and the publications (that would include all serious news organizations) that depend on them. Hypocrisy may not be pretty, but we’d never have a free press without it.

Consider a recent piece about the feuding between Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch and the latter’s exit from the family firm. Lachlan’s frustrations with his father were spelled out in The Times by “several former colleagues, none of whom would be quoted for fear of reprisal.”

O.K. Fear of reprisal is your baseline justification for anonymity, and we buy it. We don’t want some working stiff to lose his job because he did an end run around the corporate censors. Except that in this particular case, the leakers are said to be former colleagues, so they’re presumably not risking unemployment to divulge company (and, in this case, family) secrets. Still, Lachlan is known to be a hot-tempered guy with access to a gleefully partisan tabloid newspaper. He is also a boxer. Revenge is at least a plausible scenario.

Consider another example from the same story about the Murdoch succession struggle: A statement that the New York Post has been losing as much as $70 million a year under Lachlan’s leadership is attributed to “News Corporation executives who said they could not be quoted because they were ordered not to speak about the matter.”

Oooh. Defying an order: Good thing these guys aren’t in the military. Still, it’s always amusing when those who toil in the business of extracting information from others are enjoined from dishing about their own organizations. Corporate culture trumps media culture. Of course, it happens everywhere, including at the Newspaper of Record.

What if the act of disloyalty is personal as well as corporate? Another installment from the Murdoch saga (fittingly, it’s been a veritable field day for anonymous sources) attributes information in the piece to “four personal acquaintances of both men and two high-ranking executives within the company … who declined to be identified because they wish to maintain their personal or professional relationships with the family.”

In other words, they need to stay cozily behind the curtain so they can continue to gossip with impunity about their close personal friends. With friends like these ….

Consideration for the feelings of others is quite often offered up as an excuse not to be identified. To wit: In The Times’ recent obituary of Peter Jennings, we found this account of his last visit to the ABC newsroom: “His voice soft and his body as much as 20 pounds lighter than usual, Mr. Jennings told several dozen staff members who had gathered around his desk about the doctors and other patients he had been meeting and of a first-time radiation treatment he had just received, according to one veteran correspondent who did not wish to be identified so as not to offend Mr. Jennings’s family.”

Talk about disingenuous. If your description of Mr. Jennings’ appearance and demeanor showing up in the paper didn’t offend the family, why would attaching your name to it be a problem? And if it did offend them, how would having your name withheld make them less unhappy?

What it would do, of course, is protect the veteran correspondent from being uninvited to the funeral. This is self-protection masquerading as thoughtfulness, passed along by The Times with the prose equivalent of a straight face.

An even more absurd example appeared in a Times piece last month breaking the news that Governor George Pataki was about to announce that he had decided not to run for re-election. The story said he had shared this information ahead of time with a few supporters in a private gathering, “according to someone who was there who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to upstage the governor’s planned announcement on Wednesday.”

Come on! As if Mr. Pataki would feel less upstaged anonymously than he would have with the traitor’s name attached. Clearly the “supporter” in question just wants to keep his place in the inner circle. But once again, the fake solicitousness is delivered deadpan by the reporter. We picture both writer and editor holding their noses as they move these embarrassing disclaimers along, swallowing their distaste for the necessity of asking readers to place their trust in people who are engaged in betraying the trust of others.

Why keep distracting us with these many and varied excuses when they all finally boil down to the same thing? The leaker wants to reveal something that might discomfit someone else without being discomfited in turn. The journalist, meanwhile, wants the leaker to live (and stay employed) to leak again. And so do we.

The test for this sort of transaction isn’t the motive for remaining anonymous, but the motive for leaking, which The Times isn’t going anywhere near. Because the truth is, all leakers have agendas, and they’re often not attractive ones. (But without them, as Jon Stewart would say, we got nothing. Or almost nothing, since not very many well-placed news sources have suicide wishes.) That’s why being a shrewd judge of character and having a good bullshit detector are right up there on the list of a reporter’s qualifications, along with accuracy, empathy and thoughtfulness.

The thing is, an anonymous source is not de facto an unreliable source. Of course, some publications traffic in blind quotes and bits of gossip that come from disgruntled ex-employees, competitors and bitter former spouses. But major-league reporters from major-league news organizations tend to get their leaks from principals, not marginal players passing on rumors. After many years in the trenches as an editor, I know that when a story says “a source close to the C.E.O.,” it is very, very often the C.E.O. himself, who wants to make sure the writer gets his version of the story on the record, but doesn’t want to be known to be “cooperating.” Many prominent people who are known never to talk to the press in fact talk all the time—just not for attribution. This is especially prevalent in tight-lipped industries like banking and finance, where courting the press is considered déclassé, and in fortress-like administrations like George W.’s.

Which, of course, brings us to Karl Rove, whose role in the Valerie Plame outing story—and God knows how many others—is a perfect example of the knotty relationships between journalists and their high-level sources. For going on two years now, the drama has been whether the journalists involved would succumb to pressure to reveal their source, when the real story (as Michael Wolff pointed out in July’s Vanity Fair) has been the President’s chief political operative fighting dirty in “leaking” to reporters.

Which, in turn, brings us to my favorite recent example of Times-ian extenuation. In a piece about the relationship between über-leaker Rove and designated receiver Robert Novak, we were treated to the following: “‘They’ve known each other for a long time, but they are not close friends,’ said a person who knows both men and who asked not to be named because of the investigation into a conversation by Mr. Novak and Mr. Rove in July 2003 about Ms. Wilson, part of a case that has put a reporter for The New York Times, Judith Miller, in jail for refusing to testify to the grand jury.”

Fear of being drawn into the investigation? I don’t think so. With Karl Rove an even tougher fighter than Lachlan Murdoch, I’d say fear of reprisal is more like it.

Caroline Miller may be reached at carolinemiller1@nyc.rr.com.