A decade after vowing reform, the New York Times still struggles with anonymity | Bleader

Monday, January 26, 2015

A decade after vowing reform, the New York Times still struggles with anonymity

Posted By on 01.26.15 at 01:00 PM

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  • AP Photo/Richard Drew

In 2005 the New York Times cracked down on the use of unnamed sources. It wrote itself a new rule. As then public editor Byron Calame explained a few months later, "Readers are to be told why The Times believes a source is entitled to anonymity—a switch from the previous practice of stating why the source asked for it."

But Calame wasn't impressed with the results. "There clearly is work to be done," wrote Calame, and the Times never got around to doing it. In 2006 I wrote a column ridiculing the Times for the reasons its sources were entitled to anonymity. For instance, one source betraying the confidence of a Las Vegas casino owner was allowed to speak "on condition of anonymity for fear of being accused of betraying confidences."

The problem is that nothing is easier for high-minded readers to complain about than sources who refuse to stand behind the dirt they're dishing. But reporters would be lost without them.

The Times continued to not get it right, and I continued to write the occasional column about the Times's bumbling. For instance, in 2013 I noted a Times story about developments in Syria. Righteously, it did identify its source for an important detail—the Reuters news service. But who was Reuters's source? Reuters hadn't said. I suppose the Times's conscience was clear.

By now the Times had a new public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who'd turned anonymous sourcing into a crusade. Sullivan had written, "Readers deplore it, public editors shake a finger at it, Times editors and reporters say they try to minimize it. The Times's 'Manual of Style and Usage' calls it 'a last resort.'"

Sullivan's still at it. Last December 29 she lamented, "For many months now, I've been keeping track of the overuse of anonymous sources in The Times as a way of discouraging a practice that readers rightly object to. The practice continues apace—as do ever-more-inventive reasons for granting anonymity." But Sullivan was only down, not out. She went on to list one regrettable abuse after another, but concluded, "But 2015 is another year to try to root out what some have called the 'anonymice'—and the dubious rationalizations they travel with." She welcomed reader contributions to her "AnonyWatch."

Two weeks later Sullivan was back at it. In response to a tweet pointing out a particularly flagrant example of an unattributed story and a second tweet that responded simply, "I think Margaret's given up," she announced, "My quest continues, though I have to admit that my efforts have achieved little, if anything, so far."

Anonymity, possibly reaching its natural level, is becoming less a problem to solve than a running joke. Matt Gross of New York magazine published what he called "On the Condition of Anonymity: A Poem for Margaret Sullivan." It consists entirely of those "ever-more-inventive reasons for granting anonymity"—one on top of another, line after line, reaching all the way up to complete absurdity.

Meanwhile, the Times's excuse-making continues to jump off the page at me. On January 22 the Times reported this:

"The Saudis, who have long been Yemen's economic lifeline, pumping in more than $4 billion since 2012, say they would rather allow the Houthis to take the blame for the approaching economic collapse than provide aid to an Iranian client, according to a Yemeni official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol."

And the next day this:

"Mr. Hadi had come under increasing pressure from the Houthis, who demanded top government posts and undermined his control of the military and security agencies, according to analysts and diplomats. An official close to Mr. Hadi, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of apparent concern about his safety, said in a telephone interview that the president believed that he had no choice but to leave office."

I get it that one source doesn't want his throat slit. And that another source, whispering to the Times about what the Yemenis are hearing privately from the Saudis, loves intrigue but wants to keep his name out of it. You can't write rules to cover all these situations. Take each story as it comes and keep in mind that the excuse you give will probably sound ridiculous.

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