WaPo: Anonymity in the News

Tuesday, February 21, 2006 at 09:58 AM

The Washington Post is delving into the controversy over the use of anonymous sources in the press, a controversy which has left that paper's reputation besmirched to say the least.

The most famous anonymous source in the history of journalism, Woodward and Bernstein's "Deep Throat," proved the necessity and the value of occasionally agreeing to conceal the identity of the person providing a reporter with vital information. There are some things too dangerous to say on the record. There are some people whose identities must be protected, as revealing them would put them and perhaps our nation in grave danger. There is information so vital to our freedoms that it must be printed even if you have to bend over backwards, go to jail, whatever to protect the source of that information.

So, there's all sorts of people who not only should but must be identified by pseudonyms or vague qualifiers like "unnamed senior official." Intelligence agents, undercover police officers, whistleblowers, crime victims, political refugees and dissidents, minors, etc. deserve the protection of honest journalists serving both the truth and the people's right to know. Recent events however have shown that anonymous sourcing has gone too far, becoming simply a means to protect a reporter's access to the powerful or as a public relations ploy on the part of the administration. We have been spun.

Perhaps the worst example of the pitfalls of anonymity is the now infamous Plame affair, where "senior administration officials" revealed the identity of a covert CIA operative in order to avenge themselves against her husband. These "officials" have turned out to be senior indeed and may link back to the president and vice-president of the United States. The irony and the horror of the whole affair is that journalists pandering to the powerful concealed the identities of criminals but revealed the identity of a woman who should never have been referred to by name in the press.

Anonymity is designed for people like Valerie Plame, a covert operative working in counterproliferation, investigating Iran's weapons capabilities. Due to the nature of covert operations, we may never know the true price our country paid for the revelation of her identity. The CIA couldn't reveal that information without further endangering its operatives and damaging its ability to gather intelligence. We do know that Valerie Plame's career is ruined and that she can no longer participate in covert operations. The U.S. has lost the use of a valuable, experienced agent at a time when the CIA is struggling to maintain its manpower.

The Plame affair, however, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Beneath the surface is the unconscionable fact that the media has made itself the lapdog of the powerful, an extension of the public relations and propaganda arms of the United States government. Even the great Bob Woodward has been sunk.

Anonymous sourcing of government officials, however, is only part of the problem of self-censorship that has degraded a once honorable profession. Journalists turned away from mounting evidence of this administration's malfeasance, accepted payment to promote White House policy, remained silent during the illegal march to war, and pushed the "balance" of coverage far to the right of what it had been during the Clinton years. Blatant lies have gone unchallenged so that reporters can maintain their places in the White House press pool or have some chance of getting a question answered by an administration known to punish those who ask "offensive" or "hostile" questions.

Thus, the mainstream media whores have traded truth for access, sold their honor for dates with the big men on capitol hill. Is there any room for journalistic integrity or the people's right to know in this new media brothel?