WaPo has two pieces on the journalistic code of not revealing sources. Howard Kurtz has a piece featured on page one of the print edition explaining the practice and raising some questions about it.

Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, said he has never betrayed a source and that it is a question of “personal honor” for journalists. But he said the “underbelly of leaking” is not pretty.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, people are basically dropping a dime on other people, dissing other people, leaking from base motives,” Lemann said. “Let’s not pretend all leaks consist of genuine whistle-blowers. Usually it’s Campaign A telling you something sleazy about Campaign B that their candidate is afraid to say in public. But you have to honor the principle for the sake of the minority of cases that are really in the public interest.”


NBC’s Mitchell believes no-name journalism has gotten out of hand. “Anonymity is conferred much too frequently in Washington,” she said. “We really should strive to name sources much more often,” or to offer details that would “give readers and viewers as much information as possible about what their bias could be or what ax they could be grinding.”

The murkiness of the subject emerged at a White House briefing last week. Reporters wanted to know whether administration officials had not only leaked the identity of Wilson’s wife but also called attention to Novak’s July 14 column in subsequent conversations with reporters. Press secretary Scott McClellan accused them of “moving the goal posts,” saying: “The subject of this investigation is whether someone leaked classified information.”

All this puts journalists in the uncomfortable position of peppering administration officials with questions some of their colleagues, now in the media spotlight, could answer.

“It’s a tough question for journalists,” said Columbia’s Lemann. “I see why not revealing a source is very powerfully in your personal professional interest. But why is it also in the public interest?”

Good question.

Robert G. Kaiser has an op-ed

In modern Washington, particularly in the executive branch, officials are usually unwilling to talk to reporters “on the record.” Many of them are under standing orders from their bosses never to do so. “On background,” the favored alternative, allows officials to provide their views or information anonymously. Used properly, the “background” device gives reporters — and ultimately their readers, listeners or viewers — a chance to learn things they otherwise wouldn’t know. Used improperly, it permits officials to lead reporters into writing a misleading account — what we call spin.

Reporters ought not grant anonymity too easily, but their willingness to do so is not hard to understand. They don’t see much value in badgering reluctant sources to speak on the record. It’s easier to go along, as shown by the number of “senior administration officials” quoted in The Post and elsewhere.


Which brings us back to the ethical question: If a government official obtains a promise of confidentiality and discloses something like Valerie Plame’s name and job, does that violate the implicit understanding between source and journalist? Reporters often grant anonymity before they know what a source might say. This time, however, the official(s) may have abused the rituals of journalism and violated the law — perhaps inadvertently — in the zeal to fire back at Wilson. Therefore, should the reporters come forward and say what they know?


But other journalists would disagree with me. So would our lawyers, who generally insist that we must live up to our pledges of anonymity, because picking and choosing between “honest” and “dishonest” sources would ultimately harm the free flow of information. In this view, if our sources don’t have total confidence in our promises of confidentiality, they will dry up.

Which is probably why we don’t know the names of the official or officials who disclosed information about Plame.

But now there’s a criminal inquiry. Theoretically, this could change the situation. In a 1972 decision that no journalist likes, Branzburg v. Hayes, the Supreme Court concluded that “the first amendment does not relieve a newspaper reporter of the obligation that all citizens have to respond to a grand jury subpoena and answer questions relevant to a criminal investigation.”

But no administration has ever invoked the Branzburg decision in pursuing a leak investigation. No doubt they have shied away from this partly to avoid provoking America’s news organizations. Personally, I doubt that John Ashcroft’s Justice Department will try to subpoena the reporters and invoke Branzburg now. But it could.

Another caution: Those who are hoping this episode will land some official in jail should probably take a cold shower. The law against identifying covert agents is difficult to break. Only an official who has legal access to known classified information about a covert agent, and who knows that the government has taken affirmative measures to hide the agent’s identity, has violated the law.

That determination, however, can be made only after examining the evidence. If the reporters keep what they know to themselves, then the only witnesses are the very people under investigation — those unnamed senior administration officials.

That’s why this is so tricky, and so uncomfortable. Journalists believe that we grant anonymity in our quest to get a better understanding about what’s going on. Now, that anonymity is keeping you from knowing what really happened here.

Indeed. Honestly, calling the practice of encouraging anonymous smears “ethics” is a stretch. It’s one thing for reporters to allow sources to speak “on background” with the understanding that they are merely getting information that will help them know what to look for on a story; it is quite another to actually make a routine practice of writing stories based almost entirely on unnamed sources. If journalists want to have a code of ethics, perhaps revising this outdated practice would be a good start.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    And what has bothered me for years is that “unnamed sources” do not even need to exist.

    A reporter can write whatever they want and attribute it to an “unnamed source.”

    I have long suspected that reporters use this to write what they want written. (and there is a fair amount of evidence that this happens.)

    You think Jayson Blair was the only one to cut corners?


  2. JadeGold says:

    If Jayson Blair so outrages you, Paul–why doesn’t Robert Novak?

    After all, Blair merely plagiarized stories written by others. Novak was a willing accomplice to the compromising of National Security.

    Blair’s a troubled young man who apparently has drug and alcohol problems. Novak has 40 years of experience and should, presumably, know better.

    A prohibition on the use of unnamed sources would lead to having not so much news.

  3. Kevin Drum says:

    Paul: no, they’re probably real people.

    Having been caught up in this once, I understand the dilemma. Unfortunately, it really is a dilemma. Background briefings have a purpose, and leaks of classified information are often in the public interest too. We really shouldn’t discourage this too much. (Leaks of covert agents is an entirely different thing, and there’s really no conceivable public interest involved.)

    On the other hand, when it’s overused it really does become hugely unfair, both to readers and to participants. Basically, it allows people to smear other people, but prevents them from responding since the reporter is not allowed to say that he’s ever heard the smear.

    It’s a problem. I’m not sure what the solution is, though.