Friday, March 06, 2009

Look who's talking... anonymously

Just a day after my introductory news writing class started asking questions about "anonymous sources," Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald has a column titled "The casual, corrupting use of anonymity for political officials."

Greenwald includes links to official policies at The New York Times and Washington Post that set reporters' ground rules for granting anonymity to news sources -- and points out widespread violation of those rules by the Washington press corps, under both the Bush and Obama administrations. He gives examples of columnists quoting "people at the White House" on issues of policy and intention, but without naming anyone who might be held accountable for those statements in the future. Says Greenwald:

This practice was so widely abused during the Bush presidency that journalists and their news organizations engaged in all kinds of tortured public discussions -- and even promulgated guidelines for the proper use of anonymity -- all of which, since then, have been almost entirely ignored.

There are, of course, narrow circumstances in which anonymity is not only justifiable but crucial -- namely, when whistle-blowing government officials risk their jobs or even careers to divulge damaging information that the Government wants to hide -- but that obviously isn't how anonymity is being used in the vast majority of cases by Beltway journalists, such as those documented here.

Instead, anonymity is now eagerly granted to any government official the minute they ask for it -- even when they are doing nothing but spouting the official, pro-administration line -- by journalists eager to be chosen as the White House's anointed message-carrier and who are therefore willing to agree to any conditions imposed by the White House in exchange for that "honor."

I encourage students to read the whole column -- and follow the links to the newspapers' policy statements, the I.F. Stone archives and the Nieman Watchdog site.

Times Policy | Post Policy | Roanoke Times Policy

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