Unnamed Sources Sully Journalism – And Life

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What do jurisprudence, tabloid journalism, and the Watergate-era informant known to history as Deep Throat have to do with each other? We might find that a stroll down journalism’s (and history’s) back roads reveals something about our nation’s ever-greater need for forthrightness and plain-spokenness. And what might be called cowboy ethics.

Mark Felt, Watergate's "Deep Throat," in his pre-Nixon years.

Recently, in a conversation about news media, my new son-in-law remarked that what bothered him about mainstream media today “is the prevalent use of anonymous sources.”

He was more specific than that, drawing a finer focus, but the point he raised deserves scrutiny even in its broadest terms. He was right. News media has changed. Society has changed. The implications might be greater than we suspect.

What did he mean about “anonymous sources”? We see it all the time. I read an article in one of the major newsweekly magazines some years ago that gave an insider’s look at how business is conducted in the White House. That piece employed a spate of journalistic cloaking devices, identifying sources as, for instance, a “high ranking source,” a “very high ranking source,” a “source close to the President,” and other such covers. One wonders why the reporter troubled himself to make such distinctions—why not just dispense with the labels and credit all remarks to a lone “high ranking source”? Especially since we as readers will never know speaker A from speaker B or C anyway, nor will A, B, or C ever have to give account of themselves, if indeed they all exist.

And therein lies the problem with anonymous sourcing. It releases the source—and to some extent, the journalist—from accountability. And in so doing, it undermines a governing principle of the news-mediating fraternity.

There is a virtue in sources—in the citizenry—standing up and being recognized for what they have to say, and accepting all consequences, even unfair ones.

When my son-in-law made his observation, my mind flashed back to the passing, just over two years ago, of the most famous unnamed source in maybe all of journalism. The man once known only as Deep Throat—his real name was Mark Felt—passed away near the end of 2008 at the age of 95.

The justification commonly offered by supporters of the Washington Post’s handling of that 1970s episode, with Felt, the FBI’s second-highest official, as unnamed informant, was the toppling of a presidency—Richard Nixon’s—widely regarded as corrupt, a crusade the Post deemed worthy of the momentary setting-aside of journalistic principle.

In bringing down that president, the Post’s reporter tandem of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein battered down much of the resistance, seemingly as old as journalism itself, to the use of the unnamed source.

What we don’t hear about today is the fallout of that change. Whatever the merits of the Watergate reportage, the fact is that we have inherited a media composed of other, mostly lesser, news reporting outlets that have adopted those extreme methods as—in many cases—standard operating procedure.

That fallout is obvious, too, from the way mainstream media has become so much like tabloid media. It’s not for nothing that anonymous sourcing is the bread and butter of tabloid journalism, all whispers and innuendos and rumors, though of course “attributed” to a source—an unnamed one. We are supposed to credit the mainstream media with nobler aims and worthier ends than their tabloid brethren. But the distinctions have been blurred. And our nation is all the more impoverished, for lack of journalistic stand-up, be-counted, cowboy-esque values.

In hindsight, I’d rather have seen Felt give it to them straight up, scorning secrecy, defiantly declaring his name, and to blazes with the job. Imagine if he had tackled things in the full-on cowboy manner: “No, I’m not going to hide my identity,” he could have said. “Yes, I’m bringing serious allegations. Yes, I will lose my high-ranking position. But what is my paycheck, even my career, when the stakes are the fate of the nation?”

Was the hurrying of Nixon from office worth what may have contributed to the compromising of the fourth estate? Which is the greater loss? There was once a feeling that if no one is willing to come forward with allegations, taking the heat, then society ought just live with the circumstances until that day arrives. If that sounds strange, then consider that, in jurisprudence, we never question the principle. There, the accused has the right to confront his accusers. And “It is better that 100 guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted.” The law accepts this because the law believes that the end does not justify the means.

And yet, for all of that, the fault is not Mark Felt’s. Felt did what others wouldn’t. Nor is the fault even the Post’s. The larger blame lies in what happened after Watergate, and that was a slow change within all media.

And more than that. We have inherited a world in which the public has been weaned away from, or lost its taste for, a more forthright, straight-from-the-shoulder media culture. Until the public has a demand for journalism done in the time-honored ways of the past, and until sources—which are you and me—are ready to affix our names to our testimonies, then media built on those ways will not command a following sufficient for them to stay viable and influential. And without a vital, society-shaping media, our freedoms and security are threatened.

The blame for the current state of affairs belongs, as it does with every other such lapse, at the feet of all the citizenry. The ills of society—and the good of society—all spring from the common denominator that is the common people.

But we live in a world where the citizenry is hardly held to account for anything. It’s fine to criticize the high and mighty who tread the national stage, but it is completely un-PC to suggest that our citizenry could be different than it is. That’s being judgmental. That’s treading on individual “liberties.” Conversely, our predecessors were more inclined to look at the common man as the problem and as the cure. As the beginning and the end.

The example of journalism is given only as one instance, one tendency, within society. In every way, nations prosper and do good only insofar as the commonest people among them do good.

That was the man-of-your-word, tell-the-truth-and-tell-it-square mentality of the old-time cowboys—always living under an implicit understanding that they moved in a society that was made up of their own kind, or should have been.

What has arisen in America is a top-down orientation to our problems and needs. Everything hinges on the highest-profile people and events. If only we can get the right president. If only we can intercept the next catastrophic terrorist strike. If only those people in Congress can get things right.

I suspect that is partly due to the fact that we have quit believing that all real change occurs on the level of the people, within our daily lives, and that we the people have the power to lift society. But our forefathers believed it. We can too.

What accounts for the greatness of, for instance, the Founding Fathers is that they sprang from a populace that was much like them.

Look anywhere in history—you will never see elitist rule succeeding. (By “elitist,” I am referring to a ruling class that is “superior” to the governed class. Or, conversely, a governed class that considers its leaders to be superior – elite – as contrasted with themselves.) There has never been greatness where the common people were not uncommonly capable and creditable. For a nation’s leadership will never really outstrip its citizenry. Great nations are always composed of great publics.

Our society could benefit enormously from a bottom-up view of things such as our ancestors had. A bootstrap philosophy that says that raising the level of all Americans will supply all those needs that we now deem to be the preserve of our leaders. A trickle-up philosophy. Let me give it a name: incrementalism. It’s the idea that little by little, bit by bit, in even the tiniest of ways, things can be changed for the better—all at the level of the common people. And that a rising tide lifts all ships.

It is this sort of thing that I mean when I talk about this nation receiving revitalization from the Cowboy Way. For that is surely an incrementalist’s philosophy.

Bit by bit. Nothing of value was built any other way. Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But get us headed in the right direction, and every step takes us that much closer to a finer, worthier place.

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