Reporting What People Say: Not Quite Fake News

In the movie “Absence of Malice,” there is a scene where Paul Newman confronts newspaper reporter Sally Field after she falsely reports a rumor that he is under investigation for a murder. She believes she is being objective because she gave him a chance to deny it, but he admonishes her: “You don’t write the truth, you just write what people say…Where did the story come from? Knowledgeable sources, you said. Now, who is that? Somebody’s trying to get to me. Somebody with no face and no name. You’re the gofer. You listen to them, report what they say, and then you help them hide.”   

That movie came out in 1981, a time when daily newspapers and evening TV broadcasts were basically the only sources of news. But it's just as relevant today.

Since about 20 years ago, with the advent of overtly biased so-called news networks, the country has become much more politically polarized. Half the country doesn’t believe anything they see on MSNBC, while the other half doesn’t believe anything they see on Fox News.  



Both sides have good reasons for feeling as they do. One network has been virulently anti-Trump (and before, that pro-Obama and anti-Bush), while the other has been even more fanatically pro-Trump (at least since the election) and against anything having to do with the Clintons or Democrats.  

Each network’s prime-time opinion hosts consistently bash the other network as fake news. Each network finds experts, analysts, and panelists that almost exclusively follow that network’s point of view. When one expresses a different opinion, the hosts usually argue with them. So why should either side believe they wouldn’t use anonymous sources who are likewise biased?  

CNN has somewhat more credibility among the more independently minded, but not with the Fox News and Breitbart crowds.

Anonymous sources are obviously essential for the effective operation of a free press. Without them, the public never would have known about Watergate and many other important stories over the years. Lack of free press leads to tyranny. As put succinctly and definitively by Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black: “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose the deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people.”

But is it appropriate when anonymous sources are used to comment on less significant matters?  The other day I learned from CNN that President Trump (according to multiple sources) had been watching television all morning and “seething” over press coverage of the Mueller investigation.  

What does that even mean? At what point does someone go from annoyed to angry to seething? Did multiple sources independently use that word?  Or is CNN, in its desire to embarrass the President, using a word more likely to do just that?

The current press obsession with reporting behind-the-scenes goings on at the White House thrills some and disturbs others, primarily because of the almost total reliance on unnamed sources.

There is obviously some discontent within the White House on how the Trump administration is operating, and these leaks obviously have some validity. The problem is that reporters quote these sources and present the information as fact. After all, how can multiple sources all be wrong?  But when anyone from the White House publicly denies the report, they are presented as putting a spin on the story, if not outright lying. When CNN, for example, says they have confirmed a Washington Post story, have they validated that the reporting is actually true, or do they simply have their own sources who say the same thing?

It’s easy to take things out of context, particularly if you have an agenda (whether conscious or unconscious).

At the end of “Absence of Malice,” Sally Field’s reporter is ironically the center of a news story about Paul Newman’s character being falsely accused.  She gives a quote to a young reporter at her own newspaper who asks, “That’s true, isn’t it?”  She responds, “No, but it’s accurate.” Just some food for thought.

Next story loading loading..