FAKE NEWS AND UNNAMED SOURCES
January 19, 2017
Prologue: Jack Lessenberry, Responsible Journalist
The premise of this article is that the news media’s proliferating use of unnamed sources is wrong . . . wrong for the media, wrong for the pubic and, at least with respect to public officials, wrong for the source. But context is all. And so I first turn to an article that Jack Lessenberry—a renowned Michigan journalist, head of the Wayne State University journalism faculty, and frequent Dome magazine columnist—wrote last year in which he defended the news media against charges that it conveys “fake news.” Among other things, Lessenberry stated that no respectable newspaper or network invents false news stories and that, based on his experience working in the news business, “I can honestly say that deliberately publishing false information doesn’t happen.”
My undergraduate degree is from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and I spent some time in the news business before I decided to become a lawyer. Consequently, I am by way of education and experience inclined to agree with Lessenberry, who is the epitome of the reasonable journalist. But—and there is always a “but”—my inclination only goes so far before my innate skepticism kicks in.
The Inner Skeptic
I first note that Lessenberry refers to the “respectable” media. With this limiting adjective, I believe he is signaling to the attentive reader that not all news media is quite as exacting as those for whom he worked in his long and illustrious career. Certainly, I think he would agree, some of the tabloids and a disturbing number of the blogs and other newer forms of expression in the social media can hardly be regarded as respectable. Indeed, some purvey what can only be described as “fake news” all the time.
Secondly, Lessenberry to some extent has ignored the existence of that most reliable of descriptors of human behavior, the bell curve. Looked at in somewhat moralistic terms, the bell curve can be thought to apply to the news media in the following fashion. On the far-right hand side of the curve are those news purveyors who follow ethical standards all the time and who would not dream of running a story that they were not convinced, after diligent inquiry, was fully accurate. Unfortunately, the number of such news media—at least in my unscientific and thoroughly jaded opinion—is distressingly small.
In the middle are those news purveyors who get it right most of the time . . . and who, when they make mistakes, usually correct them. I think that Lessenberry would agree this middle ground is populated by a sizable percentage of the news media. They usually act in good faith, but they are not perfect and do not claim to be.
At the far left, however, are the real stinkers and it defies both logic and experience to suggest that they do not exist. Given the existence of state defamation laws and other related causes of action—even under the relaxed standards for public figures outlined in New York Times v Sullivan—and the all-against-all competition of the modern media universe, a good number of these entities do not survive long in the marketplace.
But some do; some tabloids, some TV outlets, and far too many of the “new media” have no scruples whatsoever about knowingly running stories that are demonstrably false . . . whether to increase their circulation or ratings, to inflate their advertising revenues, to confirm a pre-existing bias or, most likely, some combination of the three. As I am sure Lessenberry would agree, in every form of human endeavor there are a certain number of bad actors and the news business is not an exception.
Third, Lessenberry does not mention another pernicious influence on honest reporting: the emergence of the smear merchants. In her new book, The Smear, Sharyl Attkisson describes in great detail how these folks operate. Indeed, she devotes an entire chapter to describing the functioning of the foremost practitioner of this black art, David Brock. Attkisson summarizes Brock’s often successful echo chamber as follows:
“Brock’s smear machine has proven potent and effective. It whirs, clanks, and chugs away, creating the false impression of overwhelming support for or against an idea, candidate, or person. It has successfully led campaigns to saturate the Web, social media and news landscape that directs and dominates the narrative. The goal for all these related groups: to mainstream and legitimize the controversial positions Brock’s interests support. To sway thought among members of the public, politicians, and unquestioning reporters.”
The key words here are “unquestioning reporters.” Who are these reporters? Reporters who are seeking a scoop and don’t mind cutting a corner or two, reporters who may believe that facts are malleable, subjective things, reporters who are willing, consciously or unconsciously to accept a narrative that confirms their pre-existing viewpoints. In other words, reporters who are all too human.
Thus, if David Brock puts a story out there, a certain number of these reporters will buy it, no matter what ethical journalists like Lessenberry teach them in journalism school . . . particularly since Brock has already pre-conditioned them with his unrelenting fire hose of, well, of everything he can think of that accords with his agenda. Essentially, these reporters become Brock’s walking talking points.
Researchers have a word for this: confirmation bias, the “tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.” Or, as Matthew Hornsey of the University of Queensland puts it, “cherry picking” which pieces of information to pay attention to in order reach conclusions that one wants to be true.
What happens when you combine the witches’ brew of rumor, innuendo, conjecture, half-truths, misleading statistics, and outright lies that the smear merchants purvey each and every day with the confirmation bias that is built into most human beings? I contend that it is virtually inevitable that in a certain number of cases those in the news business on the left side of the bell curve and, unfortunately, some in the middle area will carry stories that are, in fact, fake news. Add to that the pervasive use of unnamed sources and the situation is far more alarming that Lessenberry’s article would lead the reader to believe.
A Rogue’s Gallery
To his credit, Lessenberry forthrightly admits that the news business has had its bad actors. He states that, “True, the profession gets journalism’s occasional equivalent of a suicide bomber, like Jayson Blair in 2003 and Janet Cooke in 1981, who make up false stories.” Let’s consider these two in somewhat greater detail and then add in the curious case of one Mark Felt, now known to history as Deep Throat (the primary unnamed source in the political morality play we know as Watergate, not the 1972 porn movie).
- Janet Cooke was a reporter for the Washington Post who in September of 1980 wrote a story about a young heroin addict in Washington, D.C. named Jimmy. The story was called “Jimmy’s World” and in it she described the “needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin, brown arms.” Marion Barry, then mayor of the city, was so taken by the story that he, falsely, claimed that Jimmy was known to the city, was receiving treatment, but that he subsequently died. Cooke received the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1981. There was only one problem for Cooke, the Post, Barry, and the public: Jimmy did not exist. Cooke had simply made him up, along with the anonymous sources that she said she had contacted. Cooke resigned and returned her Pulitzer. The Post apologized, sort of. (Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward actually said that, “it is a brilliant story—fake and fraud that it is.” He went on to say that, “It would be absurd for me or any other editor to review the authenticity or accuracy of stories that are named for prizes.” One wonders who Woodward thought should conduct such a review).
- Jayson Blair joined the staff of the New York Times as reporter in 1999. When other newspapers contacted the Times about the similarities between Blair’s stories and stories that their own papers had published, the Times investigated. To its horror, the paper discovered that Blair was not only a plagiarist, he was a serial fabricator as well. Often citing unnamed sources, Blair made up stories out of whole cloth or so significantly changed or added facts in these stories that they bore little relationship to the truth. After it concluded its investigation, the Times in 2003 published a 7,239-word front-page story about the affair, in which it stated that it was “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.” Blair resigned as did Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd.
- Mark Felt was in 1972 the Associate Director of the FBI. He was also “Deepthroat,” the celebrated unnamed source who contributed to the stories about Watergate that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote for the Washington Post, stories that contributed mightily to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Woodward and Bernstein have passed into legend as the foremost investigative journalists of their time. However, Deep Throat was largely forgotten. But Felt, who had previously denied his involvement, later revealed his secret when he told the authors of a 2005 Vanity Fair article that, “I’m the guy they used to call Deep Throat.”
So, Felt was not only an unnamed source (in his case, perhaps the better word is snitch, the most prominent of his time). He was also a liar and a schemer. His motives—no matter how assiduously Woodward labored to cast him as a patriotic American acting for the good of the country—were apparently entirely self-serving. He wanted to be named director of the FBI, the successor to J. Edgar Hoover. But Nixon instead appointed Patrick Gray and Felt was determined to get Gray out of the position, in the hope that Nixon would then appoint him as the next director. He almost certainly used his deep cover as an anonymous source with Woodward and the Post as a means to that end.
Political scientist George Friedman in his article “The Deeper Truth about Deep Throat” put a political, Deep State (to use today’s buzzword) type of slant on the whole sorry mess, but he was probably basically right when he said:
“The Washington Post created a morality play about an out-of-control government brought to heel by two young, enterprising journalists and a courageous newspaper. That simply wasn’t what happened. Instead it was about the FBI using The Washington Post to leak information to destroy a president, and The Washington Post willingly serving as the conduit for that information while withholding an essential dimension of the story by concealing Deep Throat’s identity.”
Friedman may be a conspiracy theorist, but he has one thing right: The problem with unnamed and unknown sources is that they are unknown. The public has absolutely no way to evaluate their credibility. The only clue we have is the reliability of the reporters involved and of the media outlets that carry their stories and, in some cases, this is simply not enough. This is just as true now as it was when Janet Cooke invented Jimmy, when Jayson Blair went his merry way spreading untruths across the pages of the country’s leading newspaper, and when Mark Felt helped unseat a president in order to further his own career.
At a minimum, I suggest, the news media owes it to itself and to its readers and viewers to think carefully about their use of unnamed sources. This is particularly true when we realize that the stinkers in the profession certainly have the ability to learn from history; they recognize that they reduce the possibility of being caught out if they simply do not name their sources, thereby making it very difficult to check their assertions because the sources of those assertions, if they exist at all, are cloaked in anonymity.
But I am not sure that such self-examination is taking place. Consider the statement of Carol Leigh Hutton, executive editor of the Detroit Free Press at the time of the Jason Blair scandal. She said that:
“[W]e use anonymous sources sparingly and only when a top editor has signed off. We try to use them only when we can’t get the information from a named source, or when the comment is critical to the story that cutting it would diminish the impact.”
So, the Free Press will not use unnamed sources, except when it is “critical.” I am underwhelmed by such a policy. But I can understand where it originates. Increasingly, the news media is highly competitive and scoop-oriented. In such an environment, a publication or a TV program or an on-line magazine that refuses to resort to unnamed sources risks being consistently undercut by competitors that routinely run—and sometimes make a fetish of—such unnamed sources. How many times, for example, have you watched a TV program, whether aimed at the left, or the right or simply down the middle, and seen a reporter turn confidently to the camera and intone with coy solemnity those four so-innocent little words “Our sources tell us”?
In my own experience, the answer is: Frequently. And, by the way, I doubt that such a reporter is quite as innocent as he or she may appear. Rather, I suspect that such reporters are a sign—and a product—of the times. They have learned from history and their operating principle is that anything goes if you don’t have to source it. But that shouldn’t be the principle, for at least three good reasons:
- First, unnamed sources are inherently unreliable. A source who wishes to keep his or her identity a secret is a source who has, as the curious case of the self-serving Mark Felt so amply illustrates, something to hide and an axe to grind.
- Second, as Janet Cooke and Jason Blair conclusively demonstrated, there are reporters out there who simply cannot resist the temptation to make up a quote—or ten—from an unnamed source if it will advance their story line.
- The third reason is the most important and the most personal. I have been in and out of public life for over 50 years. On a very few occasions, I have gone “off the record” with the media and thus become an unnamed source. I always had good reasons at the time, but in retrospect these reasons look very much like excuses. In reality I—and I think most people who go “off the record”—had an agenda of my own. Perhaps this is acceptable with a private individual, an employee for example who has seen the dirty laundry but who fears retribution if he spills the beans (mixing metaphors is occasionally great fun) and who isn’t comforted by the legalisms of the Whistleblowers Protection Act.
But a public official is in a different category. Public officials must be accountable for what they say or do. When public officials become unnamed sources, then that accountability is lost. Public officials then become the mirror image of the Janet Cookes, the Jayson Blairs, and the Mark Felts of the world: willing privately to cut a corner or even invent a fact or two in order to advance their personal agendas. This is simply wrong. It is wrong for the media to allow the news to be manipulated in this fashion and it is even more wrong for a public official to be the manipulator.
Now, I am not naïve. I think it highly unlikely that the news media will stop using unnamed sources. The business is too competitive and the practice too highly engrained for them to do so. But at a minimum individual reporters and editors can and should view materials supplied by such unnamed sources with a critical eye. The question should always be, particularly when public officials are involved, who benefits? If the primary beneficiary is a public official and his or her agenda, then I suggest that good reporters should just walk away and find a source that will go on the record.
Further, all of us, in one fashion or another, are consumers of the product that the news media is purveying. When we see stories that are replete with unnamed sources—such as the ones that now spread out of Washington like sequential prairie fires—it is critical that our inner skeptic be immediately aroused. Bald assertions of generalized guilt or innocence, or of collusion or counter-collusion, or of enormous failure or resounding success proclaimed so stridently by unknown and perhaps unknowable sources are just that, assertions and nothing more. They may very well be the product of a concern for a private agenda or simply a smear.
I therefore suggest the adoption of a variant of the time-honored axiom caveat emptor: Let the readers and viewers beware whenever they see an unnamed source being touted as an unbiased purveyor of the truth. Put your hand on your wallet and back out of the room. The news they are purveying is quite likely fake.
is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the University of Michigan Law School. During his long career, he has served on the direct staff of three Michigan governors, George Romney, William Milliken, and John Engler. In 1997, Governor Engler appointed him to the Michigan Court of Appeals where he served as a judge for almost 17 years, with six years as Chief Judge. Over the past year, he served as a Special Assistant Attorney General, advising Attorney General Bill Schuette on the Flint water crisis. Whitbeck is also the author of a legal mystery entitled, “To Account for Murder,” and is currently working on a second one.