Ken Paulson (editor, USA Today): We’re all kind of decrying the seduction of secrecy, but the bottom line is that some things have to come to us in secret. It’s our obligation to keep an eye on government and serve as a watchdog, so some information needs to come to us confidentially. People who are going to be whistleblowers are not going to go on the record. What we strive to do at USA Today is have RELATED ARTICLES
“‘The Seduction of Secrecy: Toward Better Access to Government Information on the Record’”
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“Offering Anonymity Too Easily to Sources”a policy that says we use confidential sources but for all the right reasons and with all the right safeguards. The judicious use of confidential sources allows us to live up to our constitutional responsibility, but also enhances our credibility.
Geneva Overholser: How many stories do you miss because of your newspaper’s remarkably stringent policy? I bet Susan Page, your White House reporter, could give you lots of leaks if you would take them.
Paulson: The policy at USA Today basically says that if you want to use a confidential source, you have to go to a managing editor (M.E.) and identify your source and explain why the information is valuable, why that source is trustworthy, and why we can’t get it on the record. If all those tests are met, the M.E. simply has to answer the question, “Does the value of the information outweigh the issues involved in anonymity?” What this policy has meant is that the big stories, the important stories, get in the paper. We lose some color and some dimension occasionally. This morning I asked Susan, “Have you ever known us to lose an important story?” She said, “We lose a paragraph or two, and that’s O.K..”
Overholser: Phil Taubman, what about your response to the statistics about the use of anonymous sources that we’ve being hearing?
Phil Taubman (Washington bureau chief, The New York Times): I would respond by talking a little about what we at the Times are trying to do and just say that the USA Today policy is a model for a lot of institutions. A reexamination of our practices is a major focus of what we are trying to do. I am involved in a subgroup of this effort that’s looking at how the Times can rely less on anonymous sources. We understand that it is eroding our credibility, as it is the rest of the American press, and that it is a particularly acute problem in Washington. So we are developing some new practices that we’re going to be proposing to Bill Keller with an expectation that within a month or two we’ll move on to the next phase of our effort. The current policy is great, but our execution of it has been very erratic. So we are trying to crack down in this area.
Overholser: When editors crack down, Stephen Labaton, do you dread the crackdown or look forward to it?
Stephen Labaton (New York Times reporter, co-chairman of the National Press Club Freedom of Information committee): I just file the story, and if they don’t want to run the story that’s O.K.. Having been at the paper for almost 20 years, my experience is that the principles are often wellintentioned and well-articulated, but then in the practice is when you get into some really difficult areas. It’s great to talk in the abstract, but you have to weigh both the quality and the nature of the information, which is what the USA Today policy rightly tries to do and what we’re struggling to do. When we wrote in the thick of enormous competitive pressures during the Clinton impeachment proceedings about how Monica Lewinsky had turned over the President’s gifts to Betty Currie just as the investigation was going on, we got that from confidential sources. The reporter and I who worked on that story—while we couldn’t reveal and even had a hard time characterizing the nature of where it was coming from—called up the executive editor and said, “Listen, these are who our sources are, and you need to know this because it’s going to be possibly attacked, it’s a very potentially explosive story. You need to know this so that you can defend this story, you need to know this because if you don’t want to run it that’s your decision. But you need to know it.” Often the best reporters will do that in order to get the institutional support they need for those stories. There are times it’s thoroughly inappropriate to use anonymous sources, but I do think that they’re vital in certain instances. In the current climate, I think most thoughtful news organizations do strive to balance those interests.
Overholser: Jack Shafer, you’ve been writing about this issue in Slate. Can you give us some particularly awful examples of anonymous-source use?
Jack Shafer (editor at large, Slate): I’m glad you asked, because I want to puncture the pep-rally quality of this discussion by pointing out that we in the press are not quite as scrupulous and combating of anonymous sources as we’d like to say. We’re not always victims. In many cases we’re collaborators. Today’s New York Times has a news analysis piece by Todd Purdum. I single out Purdum not because he’s a hack but because he’s one the better journalists working in Washington. And The New York Times is one of the better papers. He writes about the nomination of Paul Wolfowitz to the World Bank, “One of Mr. Wolfowitz’s associates, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to steal the spotlight, said he expected Mr. Wolfowitz would continue the anticorruption efforts of the departing president, James D. Wolfensohn, and demand fresh accountability from governments that receive aid.” This is a brand new anonymous-source description, and I’ve looked at a lot of them. Then there is a long quote from this anonymous source that basically says that Wolfowitz is going to stamp out corruption and do fantastic things. “One of his first passions”—this is the anonymous source speaking in quotation—“was development, and when he was ambassador to Indonesia in the Reagan years, he was out there with the chicken farmers, and he’s kind of made for this job in some way.” Why was this person given anonymity, and why did Todd even write this story and make the source anonymous?
Taubman: I edited that story. First of all, what you don’t know is that actually we eliminated a number of anonymous sources and information and quotes in the package of stories about Wolfowitz. I excised them and went back to the reporters and said there is really no reason to include this, and if we are going to live by our own policy we are going to have to do better. In Todd’s piece, my feeling about that comment was that as self-serving as it was in terms of Wolfowitz and his reputation, it enlightened me a bit about what his plans were for the World Bank, to understand that he was going to emphasize combating corruption and some other things. To me, it was not an example of a useless, trivial anonymous source that added nothing to the story.
Shafer: Do you mind if I quarrel with you?
Taubman: Yes, please.
Shafer: Why wouldn’t he be against corruption? It would have been news if he had said he expected Mr. Wolfowitz would encourage corruption.
Taubman: I know I’m going to be on the losing end of this exchange, but I will plunge ahead anyway. Not all heads of the World Bank by any means have made an effort to combat corruption. Corruption is a huge issue in the development world. It might be the single biggest problem in getting development aid out in effective ways to the people who need it. To me it’s not a kind of, “Well, it’s so obvious, why did you bother putting it in?” I would have much preferred to have had it on the record, but I think the whole comment told me something, and I hope it told our readers something about what his priorities would be.
Shafer: This justification that “so as not to steal the spotlight,” doesn’t seem to me to be that urgent or credible of a reason to give a source anonymity.
Overholser: I think reporters say, “Look, you know, if this is what you want to say, and you want to brag about your boss, that’s fine, but I’ve got to have a name by it.” How hard is it to ask for a name when you’re bragging about your boss? Ron Hutcheson, you represent White House correspondents.
Ron Hutcheson: (Knight Ridder reporter and president of the White House Correspondents Association): It’s easy to say the Bush administration has taken all this secrecy and anonymous sources to a new level, because it has. But we, in the media, have let this whole thing become institutionalized. Last year I led a spectacularly ineffective walkout at a background briefing. When I walked out, I turned around and nobody was behind me, and my seat was filled before it was even cold. But recently—and this shows how you can make a difference, and I give both The New York Times and the A.P. credit since they’ve been pushing hard on this deal—we’ve recently had two of what were supposed to be background briefings end up on the record because they got sick of people saying, “Why is this on background? Why can’t you talk to us on the record?” If you push back, you can get results, and we need to push back more collectively.
Overholser: Collectively is a key word. I read recently that Ann Marie Lipinski, editor of the Chicago Tribune, said, “Realistically speaking, unless all the major papers—or the TV networks most importantly—decide to shun these briefings, they’re not going to go away.” Janet Leissner, would CBS decide to shun these briefings?
Janet Leissner (CBS News Washington bureau chief): We have to have a camera in that room, but we have, as networks, taken a stand, saying, “Unless you let an editorial person in as well—whether this is an Oval Office photo op, whether this is a background briefing—we don’t do them.” Historically, and much more so with this White House, we have fought over the fact that they will let print reporters in and then they’ll say, “You can send a camera.” For us to have something on the record, people have to see it, people have to hear it, that’s what they expect from television. So this is something that we “push back on” on a daily basis. It has worked. We’ve had similar situations in foreign countries. When the President goes on a foreign trip, there are ground rules for the White House press corps and ground rules for the foreign press corps. Lo and behold, we’re again told to send a camera, and the foreign press can send a camera and an editorial person. We have fought over this on trips, saying that we have to have our reporters or our producers in addition to the cameraman, who will just basically roll on what’s being said without putting it in context.
John Cochran (ABC News, chief Washington correspondent): It’s always bargaining. A year ago I got a call from the press secretary about four o’clock in the afternoon, “Could you come up to my office in about 15 minutes, and would you wear a coat?” This was a tip-off that something was up. Went up and was joined by four of my other broadcast colleagues, from CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN, and we were escorted into the President’s office. We were informed we were going to have an off-the-record session with the President and, while the President is sitting there, we start bargaining with Dan Bartlett, his communications director. “It’s off the record,” he says. The best we could do was deep background. The President just sits there and twiddles his thumbs. I can talk about this because apparently only a few minutes after we walked out, one of my colleagues went back to a friend at The Washington Post, and the next morning the Post reported everything that was in the backgrounder. I still don’t know what the motivations were. I don’t know if he was trying to say, “You can’t get away with this,” or what. You can take the contrary view that he didn’t keep the promise that we’d made.
Regarding the use of senior administration officials, I think there is a little less of it now than there was 30 years ago, when I came to this town. When I was a young broadcast reporter, [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein were doing it. It was cool to talk about senior administration officials or officials or to have anonymous sources. I remember doing stories in which late in the afternoon I’d say, “I think we can get somebody to say this on camera, it won’t be somebody in the administration,” but—and somebody would say, “It sounds better if we just say, sources.” It was cool during that period. You could go on the air or get in the paper easier if you had an anonymous source. I think it’s less so now; I don’t think it’s nearly as cool. Now I think it’s an admission of failure when we have an anonymous source.
Tom Curley (president and CEO, The Associated Press): As John just said, the rules of engagement are changing. Now most of us are at a different point. We’re saying it is a failure. It is wrong. But there’s a bigger issue here. We have a credibility problem, and we have to understand it. And more of us—and even at a news agency where we are driven to hit the “send” key first—we have to have the ability to say, “Wait. We want to get more. We want to do more reporting. We’re not going to take the easy way and go with the source.” We’re pushing that message throughout the A.P..
Andy Alexander (Cox Newspapers Washington bureau chief, Freedom of Information chair, American Society of Newspaper Editors): I’m not at all hopeful with this White House. What we see as public interest, they see as self-interest. And they’re all about spin. I don’t think they have the same view of the role of the press in society as we do. I find it very disheartening. I think we can make marginal progress, and I do think we need unified action, but I’m intrigued by the definition of what that is. I’m more concerned with the Times and the Post and the Los Angeles Times, which are very important players in this town, in how they conduct themselves on a daily basis. For me, unified action can be having standards and holding your ground individually, and that contributes to the collective good. So I think we need to do that. I think we can get only so far with meetings at the White House. And also, it’s very complicated. It’s easy to say everybody get up and walk out. But it’s a difficult thing for TV when they put somebody on the record but don’t allow cameras in. We haven’t won anything when we do that.
Cochran: I was stunned yesterday to find out that there have been in Afghanistan and Iraq 24 deaths regarded as homicides among people held in custody by coalition forces. That material has been out there for a long time. The Department of Defense wasn’t keeping the information back. All a reporter had to do was go get it. Finally somebody asked, and they came up with the number 24. Sometimes that stuff is just out there, and a lot of it is that we’re just lazy.
Overholser: Are we lazy? Should you have a secrecy reporter, Phil Taubman?
Taubman: The answer I think is probably yes, and when I get back to my bureau we’ll talk some more. We’ve talked about that, and it’s a fair idea. The problem that we all have, and I don’t offer this as an excuse, but it is a reality, is that the competitive forces in Washington and volume of news have quickened and increased to the point even in a big bureau like The New York Times Washington bureau—we’ve got 35 reporters based here—it’s very hard to say, “O.K., I’m going to take one of them and assign him or her to do a secrecy beat.” But I am going to think seriously about it.