Anonymous sources fueling push for war
By DOUGLAS TURNER
WASHINGTON - A generation ago, the great investigative reporter and
columnist Jack Anderson said that when the press was doing its best
work, it performed as "the alternative source of information."
He meant alternative to the government. Admittedly, it was another
time, when editors and newsrooms ran newspapers. Anderson did his job
so well that there were speculations in the Nixon White House about
whether to have him killed.
Right now, with the Bush administration talking war almost daily, I
think the country could use a bit more of Anderson's "alternative"
approach toward reporting national affairs.
Despite the overwhelming vote in Congress for war, a lot of patriotic
people back home are still trying to sort out whether we ought to
send our young men and women in harm's way in Iraq.
One of the key issues is whether Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was
working with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network before the Sept. 11,
2001, attacks, and if Saddam is in league with al-Qaida now.
The Bush administration, principally hawks like Defense Secretary
Donald H. Rumsfeld, are pushing this line very hard, despite the lack
of hard evidence. No less than former Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright said the other day that, "The link between Saddam Hussein
and al-Qaida has not been made."
Even so, the link seems to have been made in the minds of many
citizens back home by repetitive comments by administrative officials
and, sad to say, the Associated Press, which I think has slipped
toward the role of government organ in the run-up to a possible war,
instead of the people's "alternative source of information."
The AP, as a result of insufficient resources, pressure or
carelessness, has slumped toward this role because of broad overuse
of anonymous sources for key stories on intelligence concerning al-
Qaida, stories that have captured the front pages of the world's
newspapers and topped the budgets on radio, TV and cable news.
We're not talking inside baseball here. The AP has fantastic
political clout; it serves 1,550 American newspapers, including this
one, and 5,000 stations, most of them exclusively.
There are many examples of the AP citing "sources speaking on
condition of anonymity" on crucial war-fever information.
But the most recent and egregious item was the Nov. 18 AP story
that "U.S. intelligence has concluded that an audiotape of Osama bin
Laden broadcast last week is real and was recently recorded,
providing the first evidence in almost a year that al-Qaida's leader
The AP's source of this muscular story that rocketed around the world
was "one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity."
On Nov. 30, European news nets carried a story, naming real, not
spectral, scientists at a named Swiss research organization saying
the bin Laden tape was probably a fake. The second story didn't get
anything like the play of the original AP report, and so most people
back home "concluded" that bin Laden is alive.
A story that played right into Rumsfeld's hands went out from the
AP's Washington office on Oct. 2, a month before the midterm
elections. It said that "a top al-Qaida operative was in Baghdad
about two months ago, and U.S. officials suspect his presence was
known to the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein." The AP
cited "a defense official."
Almost every reporter here uses anonymous sources. But it is a rare
reporter or editor who will repeatedly use this device to convey
information that might help start a war.
I have used the device on political stories, and on pieces about
impending government grants. Issues of war, death and social chaos
fall into a different slot, I think.
Tom Rosenstiel, vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned
Journalists, said anonymous sources are sometimes necessary. "A lot
of important information would never be published without them," said
the former chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek.
But, Rosenstiel said, recourse to this should be rare, and not
routine, and when it is employed, the article should clearly say why
the identity of the source or sources must be withheld.
Central to our work as journalists, he said, "is transparency. As you
move away from sharing your information with readers, you'd better
have a good reason - and you'd better share the reason with your
Anonymity is an ancient tool in opinion writing. Westbrook Pegler,
Drew Pearson, Walter Lippmann and James Reston reinvented it as
political columnists. But it was almost never used in strategic news
stories until Watergate. The Aug. 2, 1964, stories on the Tonkin Gulf
attack, which escalated the Vietnam War, were all attributed by the
AP, by the way.
The Washington Post's Watergate stories needed at least two sources,
even if they were anonymous. AP's current guidebook says one
anonymous source will do.
Attribution is a way to stay out of trouble, as the AP recently found
when it discovered one of its reporters regularly faked sources. It
is also a way to keep a president from manipulating a news service.
In his "Life of (Samuel) Johnson," James Boswell recounted that
Johnson wrote articles reporting 18th century parliamentary debates
for a London magazine. Johnson was anguished when he learned that
people actually believed them.
Boswell wrote: "Such was the tenderness of (Johnson's) conscience
that a short time before his death he expressed a regret for his
having been the author of fictions, which had passed for reality."