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February 28, 2005
Rats Jumping Aboard Sinking Ships

Jack Shafer at Slate notes that despite editorial proclamations of opposition to anonymous sourcing, the phenomenon appears to have worsened. Shafer put his skepticism of the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post to the test and searched their product for the so-called "anonymice", and found growing rats-nests among most broadsheets:

Like insatiable vermin eating and rutting their way through a bulging grain elevator, anonymice continue to multiply in the pages of the top dailies. This proliferation comes despite the public promises made by some newspapers to stamp outor at least reducethe number of anonymous sources quoted.

Last year, for instance, the New York Times and the Washington Post amended their anonymous source guidelines with tighter, more restrictive language. "The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy," asserts the Times policy. "We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence. Our obligation is to serve readers, not sources," reads the Post's. ...

I figured a Nexis dump would trap a few of the contemptible rodents, and I was right. The worst offender over this interval was the Los Angles Times, followed by the New York Times, the Washington Post (owned by the company that owns Slate), the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe. The good news is that I found no infested clips in USA Today, which is more vigilant than most papers in eradicating anonymice, and none in the Wall Street Journal via its subscription site.

For those of us who read these sources regularly, Shafer's study shouldn't surprise us but warn us of the gossip on which their journalism is based. Nor do most of the information gleaned by these anonymice shed much light on the stories the media report. Shafer includes a number of examples he found in his Nexis, most of which provide little or no edification whatsoever. One anonymouse got included in a Los Angeles Times for the purpose of telling Times readers that when diplomatic talks get characterized as "frank", it means "bad". A Boston Globe reporter used an anonymouse to support her reporting on the breakthrough postulation that Bush wanted to get commitments from NATO members to help out more in Iraq.

Don't you feel better informed now?

Shafer includes a number of such examples, written in his entertaining style, and asks why such vapid and bland statements require quoting at all, whether on the record or off. My answer? Anonymice serve the reporter and not the story; it makes people like Elisabeth Bumiller and Edwin Chen appear as if they have some sort of special inroads into the halls of power. Every reporter who has come into the business after Watergate wants to believe that they have their hands on the next Deep Throat. All they need to do is gather enough never-named inside contacts and they can write the next "All The President's Men". It's about ego over story, style over substance -- and it is one of the reasons why the mainstream media that employ gossipers have lost credibility and reader loyalty.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 28, 2005 8:28 PM

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