Saturday, May 14, 2005

Anonymous Sources Are Often Necessary If Reporters Are To Find Out What Is Going On. Reading Stories In Advance To Sources Is A Good Idea

This is the fourth in a series of six blogs on recommendations made by a panel at the New York Times for making that paper more credible to its readers. Today, I take up the panel's suggestions that use of anonymous sources be "further curtailed" and that reporters check stories for accuracy with their sources before publication and seek feedback from them afterwards.

As a longtime reporter of government and politics, I feel that often the use of anonymous sources is absolutely necessary and cannot be curtailed if reporters are serious about seeking to find out what is really happening and conveying it to their readers.

I readily acknowledge that many readers feel unnamed sources are not reliable, or even that reporters are making up quotes. So, I agree that to the greatest extent feasible sources should be quoted by name.

But the sad truth is that many government officials and in politics many participants in the campaign process simply will not speak except on a not-for-attribution basis. It is virtually impossible to get many to change. They feel there is too much likelihood they will be publicly embarrassed or get in trouble with their superiors if their names get into print. On diplomatic missions, virtually no one from the Secretary of State on down has anything to say for quotation except in the most bland terms. In politics, it is usually impossible to get a Democrat to say a Republican is winning, or right about anything, for attribution, and the same is true in reverse.

So, if this recommendation on the part of the panel was to actually be carried out, the amount of news the papers could print would be severely restricted. The papers would become bland and unrevealing.

This point should be made to the readers: You're going to have to trust us, or someone else, when you read the news. If you can't trust us, find someone you can trust. He or she will be using their own anonymous sources.

This has proved true throughout my career. When I was reporting on the Olympic preparations, for example, in 1984, I was able to tell the readers months in advance of the Games that the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee was going to have a large surplus, exceeding $100 milli9n, at a time when its leader, Peter V. Ueberroth, was swearing up and down that the surplus was and would be less than $10 million. This came from a source at the committee who I trusted implicitly and still do. It was confirmed by two others. Times editors in their usual timidity printed this significant story on Page 3, not where it belonged on Page 1. As it turned out, the eventual surplus exceeded $220 million, and Ueberroth, after the Games, gave me a T-shirt inscribed, "Ken Reich Was Right." Without use of my anonymous source, we never would have had that news.

Similarly, in covering state and national politics, I frequently used a group of political insiders, who would tell me from their vantage points what they expected to happen in a race and/or what was going on behind the scenes. These insiders always went unidentified. Since some of them are now dead, I feel free to reveal that among them in California politics were Democrats Jesse Unruh, Ken Cory and Cranston aide Lu Haas. In the 1978 race for governor, they told me on Oct. 1, a month before the election, that Evelle Younger, the Republican candidate, was out of money, and that Gov. Jerry Brown would win reelection easily. They said the only serious remaining question in the election was whether Brown would follow Ronald Reagan's 1966 example and turn his campaign funds over to other candidates in his party who were in political trouble in the election. Unless, he did this, they promised, Brown would win but Democratic candidates Mervyn Dymally for lieutenant governor and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke for attorney general would go down to defeat. Brown did not, in fact, help Dymally and Burke very much, and both were defeated. Reagan's greater political acumen in helping Republicans like Houston Flournoy to win election in 1966 by advertising heavily in their behalf was one reason I always had more respect for Reagan than for Brown, Jr.

The political insider stories often allowed me to tell Times readers what was really going on in various races. Many of my Republican insiders are still alive, so I'm not giving them as examples now, but they were very important to me as well, and as I've mentioned before in blogs, during most of this period I was a registered Republican, and everyone knew that, so my Republican sources were excellent.

Today, the Times does not carry such "insider" stories, at least not so explicitly as I used to write them. The paper's political coverage is poorer on account of their absence. In their place, the Times writers frequently interview Sherry Bebich Jeffe of the Claremont Colleges, whose political expertise is that of an outsider, not an insider.

Facts of this kind must be conveyed to readers who wonder about the usefulness of anonymous sources.

Are quotes sometimes made up? I suspect the answer is yes. But there is nothing perfect in life. Curtailing use of anonymous sources would, on the whole, disarm the press and make it less effective. At a time when there is so much secrecy in government and big business, we cannot afford not to use them, no matter what purists like my friend, David Shaw, a press columnist for the Times, may say about it. Shaw and I have disagreed about the importance of anonymous sources for many years.

Now, as to the New York Times panel's recommendation that reporters be encouraged to confirm the accuracy of articles with sources before publication and solicit feedback with sources after publication, I not only am thoroughly in favor of both, but I often actually did this at a time long ago when it was forbidden by some editors to do so.

I very frequently read stories to sources before their publication, and, based on their advice altered those stories to bring them more into accord with facts they gave me. This was particularly true of scientific stories, when I knew my sources were much more knowledgable than I was and I felt I could easily make mistakes. But I did so in political stories also. Those who heard stories in advance did not have a veto power. I did resist weakening a story unless I was fully convinced there was a good reason to do so.

But I assure you that if, as a reporter, I had always adhered to the ground rule of not reading stories in advance to some interested parties, I would not have ended up as good a reporter as I was. However, I assure you, I did not read stories by other reporters to outside sources in advance. That would have been a serious breach of confidence. The only times I used to give out the news in advance to trusted confidants was in the case of the polls. I always would divulge poll results to outsiders who I felt confident would not run to other papers with them, because, I found that such favors built up my relationships. I think other political writers frequently use poll information in this way.

Similarly, I often sought feedback after stories ran. I needed to know, in the interest of future stories, what people who were involved thought about what I had written. And, of course, I listened, when outsiders told me that other reporters' stories were wrong, or contained, at the least, significant errors. Rather infrequently, I would pass such criticisms along in confidence to either the other reporters or their editors.

So I am in total sympathy with this recommendation of the NYT panel.

Tomorrow, I'll take up the recommendations for error-tracking systems and software to detect plagiarism.

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