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Anonymous sources are not anonymous to us reporters

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright 2011 by John T. Reed

I am an investigative journalist

I am a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Association and I have attended a number of their training programs. I am a journalist and specifically in the category of what is called “the working press” in the business. That means I make my full-time income from non-fiction writing, frequently about current events or particular individuals who do not want the story in question written about them.

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I have described investigative journalism as being to other types of journalism what target shooting is to combat. In investigative journalism alone, the target often shoots back, often with a bankrupt-you and ruin-your-life lawsuit.

Such return fire tends to make witnesses reluctant to be identified.

Thus the “anonymous source.”

Worthless or fraudulent?

Targets of “anonymous sources” go into high dudgeon about “anonymous sources.” They would have you believe that “anonymous source” means no source or that the “anonymous source” is a nobody who knows nothing and whom no one would believe if they knew his or her identity.

Supporters of the investigative targets echo the innuendo of the target with regard to the value of “anonymous sources.”


No such thing as an ‘anonymous source’

First off, there is no such thing as an “anonymous source.” If I quote what you call an “anonymous source,” that source is not anonymous to me. If I got a tip or accusation from a truly anonymous source—like a letter with no signature or identifying information about the source—which I have—I would ignore it.

Or in one case, I sent it to the person being accused. He investigated it. It was a credit report on him. The entity that requested the credit report had been redacted. But the date and time had not. The credit bureau thereby instantly identified the entity that requested the report. It was real estate guru Bill Bronchick. He denies having sent it to me or that he knows how whoever sent it to me got it. He was associated with a woman who was feuding with the man whose credit report it was.

I don’t use it most of the time

Why do I not use information I get anonymously? I do not want to get sued successfully. Also, I do not want to falsely accuse anyone because it is wrong. Also, I do not want to look like a fool.

Now, I will use it if the source tells me where to find corroboration. That’s another matter. For example, an anonymous source might tell me to look at a particular document that I can get from a court or recorders office. In that case, my source when I write the story is not the person who told me that. It is the document itself.

I have, on occasion, encouraged people who want to help me in an investigation to tell me where to look if they do not want to disclose their identity to me. But I explain that I have to get a reliable piece of evidence or there will be no story. Probably most of the people who bring me dirt on someone decline to be identified and as a result, I never do the story. In the case of Robert Allen, author of the book Nothing Down, I repeatedly got tips from people who wanted me to tell the world negative news about him. But they would neither go on the record nor could they tell me where to look.

‘Where’s the proof?’

Finally, one of them did tell me where to look: in the Utah County Court House in Provo, Utah. I then got the documents, wrote the story, and it was picked up by other outlets all over the U.S. including the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Those outlets went with the story because I cited chapter and verse of the documents and I had given Allen a chance to respond. I removed parts of the story because Allen said they were not what they seemed.

I checked and confirmed that he was right. Sometimes, solid evidence like recorders office documents, can nevertheless be misleading. For example, one of the creditor suits against Allen did not really relate to him. He had simply been named because he was in the chain of title on some property. The lawyer who filed that suit agreed on the phone that Allen ultimately was not legitimately a defendant in that suit. I took it out.

Note that in the Allen case, the original “anonymous sources” who contacted me had been right all along. But they were sloppy by journalistic standards. They knew the truth of what they were saying, but they did not think like lawyers or journalists about the need for proof.

Okay if they are reliable

On other occasions, I quote sources who do not want to be identified. In those cases, I know who they are and have, by whatever means, confirmed that they are reliable. That is not foolproof, but it meets the moral and legal standard. [New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)] Like other investigative journalists, I identify them as well as I can to the readers—like “an executive of ABC Corporation”—without revealing their identity.

Indeed, we journalists generally do not use the phrase “anonymous source.” Rather, we identify the person as narrowly as we can without exposing him or her. The people who sneeringly use the phrase “anonymous source” are almost always the accused and his or her supporters.

Unlike a lot of journalists, I do not go to jail to protect the identity of a source and tell people that when they talk to me. I will keep your identity secret until a judge orders me to disclose it. I was ordered to reveal the name of an attorney that way once. Tellingly, the lawyer who demanded that and railed against the anonymity for months beforehand, instantly dropped the matter when he learned the name of the lawyer. “Oh, I know him,” was his response. His litigating stance had been that the “anonymous” lawyer I was quoting must not exist or must be a moron or a liar. When I revealed the name, of a respected, Harvard Law School graduate Manhattan attorney, poof went all the bullshit about “anonymous” sources being not only worthless, but a fraud.

‘Deep throat’

Who is the most famous “anonymous” source ever? “Deep throat.” And for how many years did the allies of President Nixon mock the anonymous sources of Woodward and Bernstein?

A bunch of Nixon people want to jail. Nixon himself needed, got, and accepted a presidential pardon from President Gerald Ford. And who was the “anonymous source”—who was never anonymous to Bob Woodward? FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, the number two guy at the FBI. As in my experience, all the dismissal of the “anonymous source” was instantly vaporized by the revelation of who it was.

An army of heroes

I wish someone would Google all the “anonymous source” stories of the past 40 years or so and see how they ended up. My impression is that they were almost all true. The truth is “anonymous sources” have been key sources in thousands of investigative stories and subsequent remedial actions that were extremely important to the nation. Generally, the “anonymous sources” and the reporters who quoted them have turned out to be heroes who exposed important scandals.

Look at the journalist, not the source ID

You cannot evaluate the validity of an “anonymous source” story from just the phrase “anonymous source” as supporters of the accused imply. You measure the validity of the “anonymous source” story by the reputation of the journalist in question. If it is Bob Woodward, or another respected journalist, it is a reliable source. If it is some guy hiding behind a handle at an Internet chat group, it is not reliable.

A recent “anonymous source” hot story was the Hermain Cain sexual harassment accusation. The right has, in my opinion, made fools out of themselves going way out of their way to give Cain every benefit of every doubt—apparently solely because they and Cain are Republican conservatives.

My impression listening to the accusations and to Herman’s denials is that the accusations were valid. The evidence seems thin, but that is always the nature of such cases. Cain changed his story repeatedly, the accusers, as far as I can tell, did not.

Today, 11/3/11, Cain, and his yellow dog supporters like Sean Hannity, have said there was no settlement. It was a “severance.”

Are you kidding me!? Since when is a generous (one year’s pay) severance pursuant to an accusation of sexual harassment anything but a settlement? A settlement is an agreement. There was an agreement in this case, as evidenced by the fact that all agree it had a confidentiality provision.

The correct journalistic stance on the Cain story is to separate the “wheat from the chaff” in the various stories. What evidence do they really have? Then you decide is this a story at all. A number of liberal media went with some obviously he-said-she-said bogus story on John McCain for a while in the 2008 election. They ended up looking like fools. It was evident in the first reports that it was too thin to go with.

It there is enough “wheat” to go with the story at all, you report the “wheat” and do not even mention the “chaff” or spin surrounding it at various liberal and conservative media outlets.

No matter what the truth is, if these women come out of hiding now, they will be heroes to the left and pariahs to the right. Can you blame them for not coming out? As I understand it, the women in question have not been the accusers. Rather, the accusers are third-parties who risk nothing personally by outing the confidential agreement.

Some may wonder why the women who signed the confidentiality agreement couldn’t get reimbursed by the National Enquirer, the Democrat Party, the Republican opponents of Cain, or some other dirt purveyor for the severance money they would have to went public in violation of the confidentiality agreement. Paying someone to violate a contract probably breaks a law called tortious interference with a contractual relationship.

I have already written before this story that Cain’s instinct appears to be to bluff and bluster his way through embarrassing personal failures. I cited a study that said his 9-9-9 plan was going to raise taxes on lower and middle income people. He got a big laugh and applause at a debate by responding to that accusation by saying in the most unequivocal terms, “That study is wrong!”

But the study is not wrong. Herman Cain is. And his notion that professional journalists can be intimidated by the force of his voice is either insanity or evidence that Cain has very little experience with big-time media and big-time scrutiny.

If and when Cain is discovered to be covering up even a minor sexual harassment incident, he may be toast. As even laymen know, it is not the behavior that gets you into trouble. It is the cover-up. Martha Stewart did not go to jail for trading on inside information. She went to jail for lying to investigators about it.

At worst, the accusations against Cain seem rather mild. For example, it’s not Juanita Broaddrick claiming he raped her. But he may have turned an unimportant molehill into a fatal mountain by looking the American people in the eye and saying, with the same conviction that he said the “study was wrong,” that nothing happened when something did happen.

Cain keeps saying he’s a businessman, not a politician and that he’s a problem solver.

Bull! He used to be an appointed executive of various household name corporations. But he has not been that since 1996 when he left Godfather’s Pizza. Since then, he has been in politics at the National Restaurant Association, advisor to Dole’s 1996 campaign, Republican presidential candidate in 2000 (you missed that?), candidate for senate in 2004, employee of Koch family in Americans for Prosperity in 2005, voice-over announcer for Republican ads targeted toward black voters in 2006, and candidate for president now.

Furthermore, he is not an especially competent politician, in spite of all those years of experience. This scandal and his handling of it is one example. The fact that he has almost no staff and is wandering around the U.S. collecting applause, like Obama, rather than working the living rooms in Iowa and New Hampshire has caused many political experts to think he is just in this to sell books or become vice-president. Or that he just has no clue about how one runs a presidential campaign.

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