Nameless Sources and the Crisis of Accountability

Glenn Greenwald (Salon, 1/12/10) makes an excellent point about the corrosive effect of the widespread use of anonymous sourcing by the most powerful U.S. news outlets. After listing a number of false stories that got prominent coverage in U.S. media, Greenwald writes:

Unjustified anonymity–especially when mindlessly repeating what shielded government sources claim in secret–is the single greatest enabler of false and deceitful”reporting.”… None of the falsehoods documented here will ever lead to any accountability, because the identity of the falsehood-producers will be shielded by their loyal journalist-servants, and the journalists themselves will simply claim that they wrote what they did because their hidden sources told them to. That’s not only the effect, but the intent, of the central method of American journalism: to disseminate outright falsehoods to the American public and ensure that neither the liars nor their loyal message-carriers ever face any consequences or even reputational loss…. Lying is so much easier–and thus so much more common–when you get to do it while remaining hidden.

Greenwald complains that reporters who quote anonymous sources “barely even bother any longer to explain why it’s justified, notwithstanding numerous policies of media outlets requiring exactly that explanation.” Actually, though, such policies are generally taken to mean that the news outlet should explain why the source wanted to be anonymous–an explanation that generally boils down to the idea that the source wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. That’s fairly useless.

A potentially more helpful rule would require the news outlet to explain, every time it quoted an unnamed source, why this particular quotation deserved to be an exception to the general rule that anonymity is to be avoided. Such a rule might actually discourage some of the more pernicious examples of anonymity–or at least produce some revealing rationalizations.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.