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May 26, 2017

It’s Time for “Anonymous Sources” to Stand Up

Or shut up.

Anonymous sources have an honorable role in bringing down dishonorable governments; remember Deep Throat and Watergate. But today’s news – at least in some outlets – is built entirely on anonymous sources. Some may be in the White House, itself, as far as I know; others are in the vast bureaucracy which is congenitally resistant to change.

The leak channel is not used only to discredit the Trump administration. This week someone with a security clearance leaked British intelligence on the Manchester bombing to the NY Times where it promptly appeared on the front page and at least temporarily disrupted intelligence sharing during an ongoing investigation. Someone should go to jail for that, even if it’s the same someone or someones who’ve been leaking the details of investigations of the Trump campaign. Publication of the Manchester intelligence by the NY Times  is a sign of anonymous source addiction.

If someone really knows that candidate Trump or a member of his campaign staff had treasonous conversations with Russian officials, then the good of the Republic demands that someone stand up and detail the evidence in person and for attribution. Is he or she afraid of losing his or her job? Not a good enough excuse. Is she or he afraid for her or his life? Not plausible; this isn’t Russia. The media aren’t afraid for their lives.

Why do we need multiple parallel investigations if someone already has the evidence? If no one is willing stand up, then the “media” should turn off the leakers as a source on this story. Cover ups are where we need leaks. We don’t have to worry in this case that there’s a cover up underway. There is a special prosecutor; there are multiple Congressional investigations.

At the least papers like the NY Times and the Washington Post should hold their leakers accountable when they leak false information. My friend Dan Gillmor, no friend of the current administration and a vigorous proponent of a free press, wrote:

"A suggestion for the New York Times: Stop using anonymous sources except in the most rare of circumstances. If you can’t bring yourself to doing that, the next time you get burned by these people, burn them back.

"The promiscuous use — make that abuse — of unnamed sources by our top news organizations is an ongoing, sick joke in journalism circles, and I believe one of the key reasons that journalism audiences have less and less trust of the craft. The Times is the most notable offender, because it’s the supposed Newspaper of Record.

"Despite a history of promising to reform its ways, and despite the staggering damage that lying anonymous sources to do [sic]  its reputation, the Times is shameless and incorrigible in giving them a platform to deceive us... "

Last fall the Washington Post ran a story that Burlington Electric has been hacked by Russians, sources anonymous. Turns out that anonymous sources were wrong (to be polite). Washington Post finally confirmed no evidence of the hack but never outed the sources or explained how it happened to get misled so badly.

A few weeks ago sources leaked that then FBI chief James Comey requested more money for the investigation of Russian interference in the US election just before he was fired. The story died a day or two later when the current acting Director testified to Congress not only that this didn’t happen but that the FBI doesn’t ask for money case-by-case. The story should have continued with who leaked a lie. Lying sources don’t deserve protection.

I do believe that media are free to keep making the mistake of using these sources, but media could do us all a great favor by telling sources to stand up or shut up and exposing those sources who lie. There should be no tolerance for those who leak information like the British intelligence on the Manchester bombing. The Times running that story is a sign of anonymous source addiction.

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