How does journalism turn into stenography?

Margaret Sullivan, public editor for the New York Times, writes: Eric Schmitt remembers being surprised when, as a member of a Times newsroom committee on reporting practices, he was given information about what bothered readers of The Times most. It wasn’t political bias, or factual errors, or delivery problems.

“The No. 1 complaint, far and away, was anonymous sources,” Mr. Schmitt, a longtime and well-respected national security reporter in the Washington bureau, told me last week. “It goes to the heart of our credibility.”

The committee’s 2004 report followed two damaging episodes at The Times: the flawed reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war and the dishonesty of the rogue reporter Jayson Blair. That report reminded journalists to use anonymous sources sparingly. The current stylebook puts it this way: “Anonymity is a last resort.”

Mr. Schmitt and I talked last week because I had criticized an article that he co-wrote earlier this month, which not only relied heavily on anonymous government sources but also described them in the most general terms, including “a U.S. official.”

From that conversation, and others with Times journalists, and from the contact I have continually with readers, I see a disconnect — a major gap in understanding — between how journalists perceive the use of anonymous sources and how many readers perceive them.

For many journalists, they can be a necessity. And that necessity is increasing — especially for stories involving national security — now that the Obama administration’s crackdown on press leaks has made news sources warier of speaking on the record. (Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post, has written revealingly about this for the Committee to Project Journalists.)

“It’s almost impossible to get people who know anything to talk,” Bill Hamilton, who edits national security coverage for The Times, told me. Getting them to talk on the record is even harder. “So we’re caught in this dilemma.”

But for many readers, anonymous sources are a scourge, a detriment to the straightforward, believable journalism they demand. With a greater-than-ever desire for transparency in journalism, readers see this practice as “stenography” — the kind of unquestioning reporting that takes at face value what government officials say.

Whether journalism appears like stenography does not hinge on over-reliance on anonymous sources. It can just as easily come in the form of an on-the-record interview such as one with director of the NSA, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, published yesterday.

Reporters David E Sanger and Thom Shanker wrote: “He has given a number of speeches in recent weeks to counter a highly negative portrayal of the N.S.A.’s work, but the 90-minute interview was his most extensive personal statement on the issue to date.”

Given the paltry amount of information their report contains, one has to ask: what were they talking about for 90 minutes?

If journalists want to demonstrate that they are not operating like stenographers, then they need to start reporting on the process of reporting.

“The director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, said in an interview that to prevent terrorist attacks he saw no effective alternative to the N.S.A.’s bulk collection of telephone and other electronic metadata from Americans.”

Did Sanger or Shanker challenge that assertion? Did they point out that by the NSA’s own admission there has only been one conviction that was based on the use of this data?

If during the course of a 90 minute interview, Alexander made few substantive statements, was it because he wasn’t being asked any tough questions or because he deflected or refused to answer such questions?

Transparency is not simply about sources revealing their identities; it’s also about journalists revealing how they work.

We get told: “General Alexander was by turns folksy and firm in the interview.” And how were the reporters? Chummy? Meek? Deferential?

In a July report on the NSA tightening its security procedures, Sanger’s primary source was Ashton B. Carter, the deputy secretary of defense. Sanger neglected to mention that Carter is “an old friend of many, many years”. Is Alexander another of Sanger’s old friends?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email