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Swallow This, Deep Throat
April 22, 2004 8:29 AM   Subscribe

Swallow This, Deep Throat Why overuse of "unnamed sources" is killing decent journalism.
“They called me when I was ombudsman and said, ‘Look, you’ve got all these anonymous sources in here — why shouldn’t I assume that you made it up?’ And when I would speak to people like Woodward and others at the Post and say ‘This is a serious problem for us,’ they say ‘Oh you know people know they can trust me.’ Well, people don’t trust them.”
posted by dnash (6 comments total)

 
The source seeking anonymity isn’t “bucking the system” — he is the system

This is a strong point in a very intelligent but somewhat obtusely written article.

This has been a perennial problem in Britain with reporting on political issues and there are appears to be no way in which to circumvent it. Journalists need access, politicians need platforms from which to fly kites, stab backs, attack the party line and disparage character.

This particular genie isn’t going to be stuffed back into the bottle but the issue of the media being co-opted for partisan political purposes remains. So then, a proposal for attempting to redress this problem:

How about declaring it illegal to publish details of leaked public documents prior to their official date of publication, subject to a complete defence of ‘public interest’?

By way of illustration of principle I’m thinking particularly of the leaking of Lord Hutton’s report on the suicide of Dr Kelly. The publication by a newspaper of the judge's findings prior to official date of publication of the report
should be considered a fundamental breach of professional ethics, yet when it happened, narry an eyelid was batted…

Any takers? How about application in a US context? 1st amendment issues?


The public has lost its trust in journalism, and I’m not entirely convinced it isn’t justified

We’ve been hearing this since the block press was invented yet somehow this epiphany never quite seems to descend on the hoi polli does it? I accept that the overall trend of newspaper circulation is in long-term decline but for the majority of citizens print media remains the number 2 way of informing oneself. Besides which, reporters are, in this context, defined in opposition to politicians. Beside the spectre of pork barrel politics, most hacks come up smelling like roses.
posted by dmt at 9:33 AM on April 22, 2004


Well, not that it would happen, but if every reporter refused to take quotes without attribution, eventually they'd come around and start talking on the record. Because they need the press.
posted by dnash at 10:20 AM on April 22, 2004


How about declaring it illegal to publish details of leaked public documents prior to their official date of publication, subject to a complete defence of ‘public interest’?

That would doubtless be possible in the UK, which does not exactly have a robust tradition of protecting the freedom of the press, but fortunately would be completely unthinkable in the US. Thank you, First Amendment!
posted by languagehat at 1:51 PM on April 22, 2004


Someone just needs to come up with a web browser editor that automatically replaces "unnamed source" with "spin doctor", or something like that. At least for the internet.
posted by MetalDog at 2:30 PM on April 22, 2004


Someone just needs to come up with a web browser editor that automatically replaces "unnamed source" with "spin doctor", or something like that

More precisely, we need to be training the public to do this automatically, as opposed to subbing the phrase "unimpeachably honest mystery superhero" instead. Blech. People are very, very gullible, and I thought the whole point of journalists was to be the ones who weren't...
posted by logovisual at 4:49 PM on April 22, 2004


That would doubtless be possible in the UK, which does not exactly have a robust tradition of protecting the freedom of the press, but fortunately would be completely unthinkable in the US. Thank you, First Amendment!

Don't doubt that for a moment (see, Zeta Jones v Hello Magazine) , but I'm asking for objections on principle. Any merit in the idea? Bear in mind that the defence of public interest would be a complete defence...
posted by dmt at 7:21 PM on April 22, 2004


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