Unidentified Sources

by Stanley Meisler

February 5, 2005

While covering French President Francois Mitterrand on a trip to Martinique in the 1980s, we in the press corps were told he would meet us in his hotel suite for a conversation “à bâtons rompus.” That French idiom — literally “with broken sticks” — meant that the discussion could shift from one subject to another and that Mitterrand would be less formal and more open than usual. But the aides cautioned, his replies would be “off” — a new French journalistic expression that is an abbreviated form of the English “off the record.” In short, Mitterrand could not be quoted.

During the session, which lasted an hour or so, Mitterrand made a few derogatory and snide comments about his prime minister, a member of his own political party. As we left the suite, the correspondent of Agence France Presse, the authoritative French news agency, announced to his colleagues that the President’s remarks about his prime minister were simply too important to remain “off. The others agreed, and the Paris newspapers soon headlined breathless stories replete with Mitterrand quotes belittling his own prime minister. As far as I could tell, no one in the President’s office ever tried to punish the reporters for defying the ground rule about “off.

That anecdote keeps flickering in my mind as I try to make sense out of the current and lingering journalistic controversy about protection of sources. Two reporters have been threatened with jail for refusing to reveal the name or names of those in the Bush Administration who told them that the wife of Bush nemesis Joseph Wilson was a CIA operative. The publication of her name — ironically by a third journalist, not the pair under threat — is against the law and has damaged her career and may harm her contacts overseas.

The threatened reporters have invoked a code of journalism. We do not reveal the names of sources who give us information in private. If we did, no one would come forward with vital secrets. They would be afraid. So the two silent reporters are willing to go to jail to protect the code, to protect other journalists like me, to protect timid sources everywhere, and, of course, to protect the public.

It is a noble sentiment. Yet the anecdote about Mitterrand — though a far from perfect parallel — keeps making me wonder whether our code is too rigid. After all, there are sources and sources, and there are secrets and secrets. Sometimes information dubbed “off is too important or too official or, in fact, too trivial to be “off.” I wonder whether my colleagues are risking too much for a code that needs a good deal of reform.

Let’s make clear who the code must protect. It’s the whistle blower, the Deep Throat, above all — the honest government official who sees an administration tainted by or wallowing in corruption or criminality or immorality or injustice and feels compelled to tell a reporter about it for the good of the nation. This source must be protected, for his or her career could be destroyed if exposed. Another source who needs protection is the mid-level official who feels comfortable chatting about policies and personalities with a trusted and friendly reporter. These sources often provide insights that illuminate or contradict the policy pronouncements coming from the White House. They, too, would lose their jobs if exposed.

But these two sources — the whistle blower and the chatty, insightful confidante — make up only a small proportion of the unidentified sources cited in newspapers. For the most part, the sources quoted in newspapers are spewing out information that the government wants planted in the press. Why mask them? Why protect them?

These sources request anonymity for a variety of reasons. Some are trivial. Often the source does not want to upstage or embarrass the president or a cabinet member. After President Bush’s second inaugural address, for example, officials in the White House became concerned that some listeners had taken the president’s lofty, idealistic words too literally. So they told reporters that the president did not intend to pronounce a change in policy. The Washington Post identified one of the sources for this spin as “a senior administration official, who spoke with reporters from newspapers but demanded anonymity because he wanted the focus to remain on the president’s words and not his.”

Sometimes the government withholds identity to soften the impact of its announcement. This is especially true of diplomatic talk. Criticism or policy change may be easier for another government to accept if the offending words come from “a senior administration official” rather than the secretary of state. Henry J. Kissinger, when he was national security advisor and secretary of state during the Nixon and Ford administrations, was notorious for switching on and off the record during the same briefing of reporters. He did this so many times during one briefing about China in 1972 that reporters gave up and asked him to take a transcript of his remarks and mark up what could be attributed to Kissinger and what to “a senior administration official.”

Finally, government sources insist on anonymity when they are cynically using the press to spread an idea or damage the reputation of an enemy. This explains some of the “exclusives” quoting unidentified sources about weapons of mass destruction before the invasion of Iraq. The Wilson case surely falls into the same category. White House officials were evidently upset that Ambassador Wilson had written an op-ed piece revealing that his special CIA mission had concluded that Niger had never sold uranium to Iraq. The officials tried to belittle his mission as a low-level assignment arranged by his wife at the CIA.

Unlike the whistle blowers and the low-ranking confidantes, most of the unidentified sources in newspapers are planters of news and therefore have no right to protection. The whole problem would be solved, I suppose, if reporters simply refused to grant anonymity to most “senior administration sources.” The Washington Post tried something like that during the Kissinger years, refusing to attend his briefings but quoting him by name after interviewing reporters at the sessions. The Post finally gave up, and Post reporters returned to the briefings. Some editors now urge their reporters to try harder to persuade sources to allow use of their names, but many sources still insist on anonymity.

I think there’s an easy way out of the problem. Major newspapers and television news shows should make it clear that government planters of news will be granted anonymity but only as a courtesy, not a privilege. That protection covers only whistle blowers and confidantes. Sure, if an assistant secretary of education does not want to upstage his or her boss, we’ll keep the name out of the paper. Sure, if an undersecretary of state does not want to rile Egypt too much, we’ll say the criticism came from “a senior administration source.” Sure, if some White House officials want to feed us confidential information, we’ll use it if we can confirm the story elsewhere. But we won’t go to jail to protect their masks.

I’m sure senior administration officials will talk to us anyway. How else can they plant their news?

February 5, 2005
Washington DC

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