Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Anonymous Sources, the Invisible but Invincible, Communications Force

While some in the media are getting around to discussing the practice of letting anonymous comments continue to appear in news outlet Web page responses, a wonderful article in The Weekend WSJ, “The Feuding Fathers,” reminds us that anonymous sources go back to well before the founding of our Republic and have always been an important part of the national discussion.

The article reminds us that Adams, Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and even Jefferson wrote polemics against each other through others and using pen names. We might recall that "The Federalist Papers,” a national discussion that shaped and framed the debate over our Constitution was written entirely by people using false names.

George Washington, acknowledged and acclaimed as a great hero and father of the country, was constantly vilified as were his wife and her mother, most often by anonymous comments. If you read “Infamous Scribblers” by Eric Burns, he describes how Washington, despite his fame, could not understand how he could be loved by so many and so viscerally hated by so many more in the press.

To be anonymous is to be omnipotent. And you only get to be anonymous of the journalist lets you.

When you get right down to it, it’s not a matter of journalistic ethics; such concepts exist in the minds of about 25 people. If it’s a good story or a good quote, it’s going to run. If it’s consistent with a journalistic view, it’s even more like to be used. If it’s negative, accusatory, or sensational, it will “be above the fold”, let the pieces fall where they may.

Does the name McChrystal ring a bell? He’s a causality of his own four star, ego-driven carelessness, and the failure of those who advise him to stay focused on what matters, or get him the heck out of there.

I’m reminded again of the famous statement by Janet Malcolm, something too may of us fail to share with our clients because we often seem to value our “relationships with reporters” more than the interests of our clients:

According to Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer, New York, Vintage Books, 1990, pp. 3-4), “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse . . . On reading the article or book in question, (the source) has to face the fact that the journalist - who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things - never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject.”

American journalism has always been relentlessly competitive, amoral, aggressive, contentious, and negative. Survey after survey demonstrates the public’s belief that reporters use deception and practice reckless reputation destruction. Yes, these same citizens eagerly watch, view, listen, and even participate.

The current discussion going on among about six do-gooders in journalism is phony, self-serving, and will result in a completely predictable self-forgiving outcome. Here’s what they will say:

“Having seriously discussed and studied (sic) the practice of allowing anonymous quotes, statements, and observations about news stories to follow articles on Web sites, it is clear that the practice must continue. To do other wise would be censorship, deprive readers and web visitors of some interesting alternative points of view, and, after all, it’s up to the target of such comments to disprove what’s being alleged, not the media. To require valid identification and disclosure of comment sources would chill the free speech rights of many, stifling robust public discussion. Our responsibility is to bring these points of view forward,” and . . . wait for it . . ., “to let the people decide”.

Yeah, sure.

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