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The crack cocaine of beltway journalism

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Much is being made of the NYT’s “apology” today for blowing it on WMD coverage (see Romenesko). But all I see is a media, including the Times, that doesn’t really want to deal with the root cause of the problem.

Sure, you can argue that the Times got it wrong on many fronts related to WMD. Both the left and the right, pro-war and anti-war, can put its own spin on how WMD was covered in the run up to the war by the NYT and other major media. But if you want to be honest, and you care about ethical journalism, the issue isn’t whether the Times and others displayed sufficient skepticism, because in the end, a news reporter is only as good as his sources (or source documents). In the run up to the war, there is only so much a reporter can uncover. In the end, it boils down to either relying on government sources and various “experts,” or going and digging through the Iraqi sands yourself. And since any investigative reporter who would actually tried to find WMD (or lack of) in Iraq probably would have found out the truth about Abu Ghraib much faster than he would have liked, you’re only left with human intelligence — second hand information given to you by officials in various world governments. And in the end, that means the fault isn’t with the information, but how the information is gathered, vetted and disseminated. It is all about sources, how they’re handled and how they’re trusted.

And no ethical, honest reporter trusts a source who isn’t willing to put his name to a quote, except under extreme and unique circumstances. Those circumstances rarely applied to any reporting prior to the war (possibly, never applied).

Go through the Times’ stories. There are scant few facts, real or imagined, that are attached to named sources. All you get are “administration officials,” and the like.

Here’s the problem: When you don’t hold sources accountable by printing their names, you are giving them a blank check to spin, to lie, to disinform, and to promote personal, political or institutional agendas. Where there is no accountability for information, there is no incentive to speak the truth, to be sure you’re right, to be personally responsible for what you say.

And don’t think for a moment that every “official” in Washington doesn’t understand this simple truth.

Unnamed sourcing is the number one way in which Washington politicians manipulate the news media.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, we heard much about “shock and awe.” To hear the news media tell it, this was THE war plan. And the idea that it was the plan was hammered home by various unnamed sources, various Pentagon sources and administration officials, over and over. But to anybody who took even 15 minutes to research “shock and awe” on the Internet, it would be apparent that this was no real plan, especially to anybody with a modicum of military background. The idea that “shock and awe” was the military plan was laughable on its face. Yet, it’s what the news media fed us day after day. Why? Because it’s what a bunch of anonymous sources kept feeding gullible Pentagon reporters. Why? Because the more the military could distract the media with bogus shock and awe stories, the less time the news media would spend scrutinizing what the real plan might be. And, most importantly, the fewer tough questions the media would ask about the real plan, and the POST WAR PLAN.

Beltway journalist did American democracy a HUGE disservice by concentrating its fire on shock and awe instead of being enterprising and trying to find out the truth.

It was, pure and simple, lazy and unethical journalism.

The media will argue that many stories will go unreported if ethical standards were applied to unnamed sources. First, this is a lie, because anything that is news worthy (99 percent of the time), an official source will speak on the record if he can’t get the information out otherwise. Second, the price of passing on stories that can’t be properly sourced is a lot lower than the price of damaged credibility when a story turns out to be disinformation or worse. There is no valor in printing lies, no matter how many other news organizations you beat or how pearly your prose.

In 99 percent of the cases where major media journalist use unnamed sources, it is lazy and unethical. It is unprofessional. In most cases, anonymous sources only speak to reporters to push agendas that have nothing to do with what the media should be most concerned with: the truth. Anonymous sources are either self-serving, in most cases, or serving a master that has authorized a “leak.” Few anonymous sources are actually doing a reporter a favor when speaking on background, but of course the ego of every reporter is fed by whispered rumors and ideal speculation that supposedly only that reporter has the “scoop” on.

It’s clear by now that much of what the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, Israel — or any other country you care to name — was relying on was purely guess work. It wasn’t real intelligence. It was only supposition and conjecture and somewhat logical deduction. Much of it wasn’t unreasonable, but most of it was flawed. Little of it was based on fact and reality. But the flaw here, from a journalistic standpoint, isn’t that this flawed intelligence was floated out to the public. It’s that no source was forced to attach his name to it. The use of named sources would have improved public debate by getting more reliable information on the record, and allowing other reporters to more closely scrutinize the validity of WMD claims and suppositions.

And so we get this apology from the Times that ignores the plank in its eye while straining to see the gnat.

Incredibly, Howell Raines, displaying once again his huge ethical blindness, defends the Times’ WMD stories. Whatever shred of credibility the man departed the Times with should now be lost.

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