The Value That Keeps Shifting

Anne Applebaum writes an op-ed in today’s Washington Post defending the use and protection of anonymous resources in reporting and punditry, with the somewhat-ironic title “The Value of Anonymity.” In her essay, she rightly notes the role that these sources provide in getting to the real data behind the PR smokescreens erected by bureaucrats of all stripes:

Some of us will get the balance wrong — there are bad and corrupt journalists, just as there are bad and corrupt members of any other profession — and some of us will make mistakes. But the alternative to a relatively open, relatively comfortable relationship between the press and the government isn’t exactly attractive. Earlier this week the owner of a Jordanian newspaper visited The Post. He described his efforts to open up the press in his country, to ease laws that restrict what topics the press is allowed to address, and to create a newspaper independent of government financing and influence. But ultimately, he said, the legal system wasn’t his worst problem. Far more troubling was the fact that Jordanian government officials “feel no obligation” to say anything to the press, on or off the record, at all. In Jordan, there are no anonymous sources with whom members of the press are entangled, no lower-level officials who can help shed light on events — and as a result, it’s hard for the press to be relevant to politics. Is that really the system we’d like to adopt in this country, too?

No, but problems erupt when the press decides to assign that value based on the politics of the source itself. For instance, when anonymous sources decided to tell the Washington Post that the CIA ran detention centers in Eastern Europe for interrogating terrorists, that source apparently needs the utmost in journalistic protection — even though it revealed an ongoing and extremely sensitive wartime operation that could cost American lives by the thousands, if compromised. On the other hand, when a columnist revealed that the wife of a prominent public critic of the Administration worked for the CIA and had arranged for her husband to travel on the agency’s dime to discredit the administration with what the Senate later determined was misinformation, that source somehow deserves no protection whatsoever, and any journalist who protects him/her achieves instant pariah status. Just ask Judith Miller.
We’d love to agree with Anne about the value of anonymous sources, if the value didn’t keep changing based on whether the source’s truths hurts or helps politicians with which the media elite support or oppose. Until then, Anne, color us somewhat cynical on such pronouncements of reportorial courage.