Unidentified Sources Can Work to Protect Public

Chastened by the violent protests in the Islamic world that followed its report on the desecration of the Quran, Newsweek issues new rules limiting the use of unidentified single sources. Those sources, however, can be vital in exposing corruption.

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Newsweek is putting new limits on its use of anonymous sources. This week's issue of the magazine contains a letter from the editor in chief. In it, Richard Smith apologizes for the now-retracted report on the desecration of the Koran. He also says that Newsweek will redouble its efforts to make sure nothing like it ever happens again. NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr says the move is part of a trend inside news organizations.


We seem to be in one of those recurrent periods of leak-bashing. And since nobody in my profession seems to be standing up for news from anonymous sources, I venture to do so. Do I have a personal interest? You bet. I look back to 1976 when someone leaked to me the complete text of a House committee report on CIA misdeeds which the House had voted to suppress. Leaks are sometimes a form of whistle-blowing that expose official misconduct.

The father--or mother--of all leaks, of course, was Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's source that started the Watergate ball rolling towards President Nixon's resignation. The Iran Contra scandal that put a blotch on the Reagan presidency started with a leak in 1986 to, of all things, a Lebanese newspaper with a source in Iran. It was no surprise that President Reagan once said he felt himself up to his keister in leaks.

A leak to Newsweek intercepted by Internet gossipmonger Matt Drudge started the exposure of President Clinton's affair with a White House intern that led to his impeachment. More recently, the exposure of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal started from information in pictures from unidentified sources obtained by CBS and investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.

Tim Golden of The New York Times obtained the confidential file of an Army criminal investigation of the brutal torture and killing of two Afghan detainees. And last week we learned from an anonymous military officer who spoke to The Times that American military involvement in Iraq could last for many years.

As Michael Isikoff of Newsweek can tell you, sources can come back and bite you. But sources, on the whole, have served our republic well, and it would be well not to throw out the leak with the bathwater. This is Daniel Schorr.

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