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Journalists Are Duty Bound To Pursue Objective Truth, Not To Become A Tool
After a 40+ year relationship, I ended my Washington Post subscription last year. Their (and the New York Times) wholly undeserved Pulitzer Prize over breathless and largely discredited reporting of the Trump-Russia collusion hoax and overreliance on anonymous sources for an endless stream of anti-Trump stories lost me. I knew I could no longer trust the Washington Post – owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – as a credible journalistic enterprise.
Turns out I was prescient. As is finally being well-reported Monday and Tuesday, the Post has officially shredded its credibility for all to see. It involves a remarkable, if muted, correction over a false story over the Trump-Georgia election official phone call where Trump allegedly told election investigator Francis Watson to “find the fraud.” The Post ran the story based on an anonymous source, and per the media’s custom, a cavalcade of follow-up stories appeared among the usual suspects.
Worse, US House impeachment managers used the story as a basis of their prosecution of Donald Trump. That’s a big deal. We now know of other falsehoods that were the basis of the impeachment and failed prosecution, including the false assertion that the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was an “armed insurrection.”
The Post has put the corrected story, under the byline of Amy Gardner, with an explanation behind their paywall. However, if you go to the Post’s main website (which is updated regularly with the latest propaganda) you will see absolutely nothing about their journalistic error, or anything do with the Georgia election last year. You will see references to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) being a racist, “Biden is right” to ignore Trump’s advice on vaccines, blah, blah, blah. Very Pravda-ish.
How did a transcript of the recording become available some two months after the call and the Post’s breathless reporting? Because while responding to an open-records request, someone found the recording of the call on Watson’s computer – in a computer trash folder. She apparently forgot to empty it. Odd place to file the audio of a call with the President of the United States, no? Something tells me that the election investigator didn’t quite follow “procedure.” That in itself begs a number of questions for Francis Watson, if not an investigation.
The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, waited (and may have filed the open records request) for the transcript of the call. They reported on it yesterday, which exposed the Washington Post’s lies, forcing the correction. And the best outline of the whole sordid thing is found here, from the blog Legal Insurrection.
I have some questions for the Washington Post.
Has reporter Amy Gardner or her editor(s) been held accountable in any way for the erroneous reporting?
What did the Post do to attempt to corroborate the explosive assertion that would later prove false?
Since the Washington Post failed basic journalist standards and defrauded its consumers, what steps are the Post going to take regarding the publication of claims by “anonymous sources” going forward?
Will the Washington Post expose the name of the anonymous source behind the false reporting, if not publicly then at least to the leaker’s chain of command? (Note: Since this was first posted, I’ve learned that the Washington Post outted the leaker: GA Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs. He should be fired).
Is Georgia’s Secretary of State going to investigate this breach of public trust and hold the anonymous source accountable (unless he was the one who leaked, in which case it should be made public)?
Now, some observations about anonymous sourcing. I used to be a newspaper reporter and editor, and I’ve been an anonymous source, on very rare occasions. Let us outline the conditions under which people talk to journalists in ways not to reveal their identity, and how this game is played.
First, let’s make it clear that there is, really, no such thing as “off the record.” If something is so valuable and explosive that a source feels it necessary to share it “off the record,” the information will find its way to public consumption. Of course, there are social events involving current and former public officials and journalists where “off the record” is honored, but no real news is made, either. Journalists use these events to learn, build relationships, and get story ideas.
Second, and here’s what evidently happened with the George elections story: the “source” said “not for attribution,” meaning that you can quote what I’m telling you, but you cannot identify me by name or position. Or maybe not even the office in which I serve. The reporters will, or should, need to know how the source “knows” the information is true (were you on the call or were you just “read” the call notes,” for example). People who want to talk want to be protected from the consequences of their disclosure.
Third, there is something called “on background.” This is common in the journalist-government official relationship. It means the reporter won’t quote or cite the official’s name or title, but wants to understand the issue so he/she knows how to pursue or focus on it. Going on “deep background” often means that you can’t use what I tell you in a story, it is not for publication, but I’m sharing it to help guide you. Reporters and sources sometimes negotiate their way through an interview, or series of interviews, to decide what’s for attribution, what’s not, and what is on deep background.
Fourth and finally, on rare occasions, media will call a source as they’re wrapping up saying, “I need someone to say this,” for attribution or not, to put a bow on their story. They actually don’t want to manufacture a quote, but that’s in effect what they’re doing with the help of an accomplice.
This is important: While journalists need and cultivate sources, lots of people like the power that can come with cultivating a journalist.
Lots of “experts” have learned the “sourcing” game with media. Would-be sources (experts in or out of government) with expertise or established credibility call reporters in hopes of influencing their perception of people, events, and what they cover and publish. Much of it is straightforward and starts innocently enough. Trust is verified and established. As with any personal relationship, after a while, reporters can carelessly take a source’s word for something when they shouldn’t, especially when they’re motivated to sell or push a narrative. Malevolent sources can even recruit other sources to “corroborate” narratives and assertions, to meet a reporter’s “need” for extra sourcing. Conversely, such “sources” can discredit other sources pushing a counter-narrative. It has become a sophisticated business. And you can see how things can go wrong.
It starts to go bad when the pressure to push a narrative becomes more important than the truth.
Something else: just because you tell a reporter something is “not for attribution,” it doesn’t mean the reporter has to honor it. It’s like a contract – the reporter has to agree to the conditions. Many an interviewee has been burned by not understanding that basic contractual understanding.
Often, you can adopt different rules to different parts of the interview. It is not common to find a source’s name on the record with one aspect of the story, but become an “anonymous source” or provide background “not for attribution” elsewhere. I have a theory that information is “anonymously sourced” elsewhere in the story being quoted publicly.
Here’s the thing: when a reporter walks into an editor’s office with a story based in part or even exclusively on “anonymous sources,” usually red flags go up, or should. Did you corroborate the information? Do you trust the source? How confident are you? The editor has to make a judgment call based on what the reporter is telling them.
And sometimes that judgment call is wrong. Especially when you’re paper is more interested in pushing narratives instead of the truth. “Democracy dies in darkness,” indeed, Washington Post. It also dies when officials say things or handle records in a manner that raises questions about their own integrity, or lack thereof. Looking at you, Georgia, and US House impeachment managers.
But here’s the takeaway: do not take any major “breaking story” at face value. Make no judgments until the facts begin to emerge, usually in a day or two (sometimes it takes longer). Stories change. sometimes a lot. Question everything. Learn to be a discerning consumer of media, no matter the source. A relentless pursuit of truth isn’t just the media’s job – it’s your responsibility, too. And that is especially true for our elected officials.
After all, as we now sadly know, sources will lie or mislead to promote or protect narratives, people, or worse. And sadly, too many reporters these days are all too happy to help them.