The Problem With Anonymous Sources

Anonymous sources are essential for a free press to effectively shine a light on a government deception.  Without them, we never would have exposed Watergate and other important scandals, and crimes.  

But it is appropriate to use anonymous sources to comment on less significant matters?

Some find the current press obsession with reporting behind-the-scenes White House  activities disturbing, primarily because of an almost total reliance on un-named sources. 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 reporters say, for example, 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).



The problem is that 20 or 30 years ago, anonymous sources were generally more trusted. Reinforced by such popular movies as “All the President’s Men,” people assumed sources were extensively vetted and not used unless multiple independent sources provided the same information.  

Today, half the country doesn’t believe much of what they see on Fox News, and the other half doesn’t believe much of what they see on MSNBC.  Each side has good reasons for feeling as they do.  One has been virulently anti-Trump (and before that, pro-Obama and anti-Bush), while the other has been pro-Trump (at least since the election) and fanatically anti-Clinton, Pelosi, and Schumer.  

Each network’s prime-time opinion hosts constantly bash the other as fake news.  Each network finds panelists, analysts, and experts that almost exclusively follow that network’s point of view.  When one occasionally expresses an opposing viewpoint, the hosts typically argue with them.  

So why would either network’s viewers believe they wouldn’t use anonymous sources who are likewise biased?  CNN has somewhat more credibility among the independent-minded, but not among conservatives or conservative media.

As I’m writing this, CNN and MSNBC are quoting The New York Times, which had no fewer than four sources with “firsthand knowledge” tell them that President Trump ordered the White House lawyer to fire Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller back in June.  The White House lawyer refused and threatened to quit, so the president backed down.  The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC each said that they independently confirmed this story.  They’ve been spending the past two hours, and likely will be spending the next week or so, reporting this as fact.  

I switched over to Fox News, and lo and behold its White House reporter said despite what the other networks were reporting, his sources said this never happened.  He said there was simply a meeting where the president said he had the authority to fire Mueller, and speculated what might happen if he did, and the White House lawyer said that would be a horrible idea, and that ended the discussion.  

The anchor then said, “Well, the president calls it fake news, so let’s move on to something else.”  

I tend not to give much credence to either Fox News or MSNBC, but when the Times and Washington Post say the same thing, I tend to believe it (they vet their sources much more fully than any cable news network).  Of course, that’s my own bias.  CNN, on the other hand, is often just sloppy.  I switched back to CNN to hear an anchor arguing with a Trump surrogate saying that even Fox News confirmed the story — again, Fox News all morning had been saying the story is not true.

Yes, anonymous sources are essential to the operation of a free press.  That doesn’t mean we should always blindly believe them.  At the very least, reporters should tell us whether these anonymous sources have been used before and provided information proven to be right.

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