Use of Anonymous Sources Under Fire

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Deep Throat is possibly the most influential anonymous source of all time. News of his identity comes at a time when the use of anonymous sources is being debated.


Now this news about Deep Throat comes at a time when using anonymous sources is under attack, as NPR's David Folkenflik reports.


In Washington, big-time reporters say it's tough to break a big story without hidden helpers who often carry cloaked agendas. Just listen to David Wise, the former Washington bureau chief of the New York Herald Tribune and author of numerous books on national security matters.

Mr. DAVID WISE (Author): Without anonymous sources, many of the important stories, and not just Watergate and Deep Throat that's getting all the attention, but many stories over many years would never have seen the light of day.

FOLKENFLIK: For example, Wise relied on an anonymous source for an article last year in Vanity Fair magazine about the Bush administration's justification for the invasion of Iraq. Wise reported former Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations depended on an informant who claimed to have witnessed the development of weapons of mass destruction. Wise's source told him the informant was unreliable and had never been interviewed by the CIA.

Mr. WISE: You can't cover agencies like the CIA or the FBI, for example, unless you're able to talk to people on the basis that they won't be identified.

FOLKENFLIK: The Bush administration has attempted to centralize the flow of information from the White House, frustrating many reporters, but their use of anonymous sources has nonetheless come under fire. Editors at USA Today and The New York Times have announced they'll be much stricter about allowing their use after scandals involving reporters who hid fabrications behind unnamed sources. Geneva Overholser is the former editor of The Des Moines Register and she also served as the ombudsman or in-house critic of The Washington Post. She says anonymity should be allowed only when the information is crucial to understand how powerful institutions work, as in the Watergate scandal.

Ms. GENEVA OVERHOLSER (Former Editor, The Des Moines Register): Unfortunately, we use them with profligacy. I mean, we let people malign others anonymously. We use them when it's not very important information. I remember during my years at The Washington Post, I must have written well over a dozen columns on this, and, you know, somebody said, `Oh, she's just a prairie marm. She came out here from Iowa. She doesn't know we do this in Washington.' We haven't really understood how much damage it can do when we overuse them.

FOLKENFLIK: Newsweek recently changed its policies on unnamed sources after it was blamed for deadly riots abroad. It had published a short article that cited evidence for the alleged mishandling of the Koran at the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay. The White House condemned the story, and reporter Michael Isikoff's lone anonymous source for that portion of the item backed down. The source told Newsweek he had seen evidence supporting the allegations but no longer remembered precisely where. Newsweek retracted the story, even as similar accounts emerged elsewhere from detainees.

Pulitzer-winning reporter Lowell Bergman had better luck with Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco executive whose story served as the basis of the movie "The Insider." Bergman relied on Wigand as an unidentified source for "60 Minutes" about the tobacco companies' fight in the 1990s to avoid liability for lung cancer deaths linked to smoking. Bergman says he uses unnamed sources to guide him to documents and other evidence as he painstakingly assembles stories, not to turn around quick scoops.

Mr. LOWELL BERGMAN (Reporter): If you're in the sort of 24-hour news cycle, which Newsweek and Isikoff were involved in, you know, how to get a tidbit out there before anybody else, you become much more vulnerable.

FOLKENFLIK: But Bergman says the lure of anonymity has proved irresistible for many journalists on tight deadlines and for their sources.

Mr. BERGMAN: Ever since Woodward and Bernstein, there's sort of been an epidemic of confidential sources in Washington, in particular where people will actually--when you call them up on the phone, they'll say, `This is off the record,' or, `This is on background,' or they don't even wait for you to say anything.

FOLKENFLIK: But investigative reporter David Wise says he thinks recent changes in policies aren't going to stick.

Mr. WISE: The media is gun-shy and so there is all this, to some extent, posturing about anonymous sources. I don't think much is really going to happen because you can't report the news without them.

FOLKENFLIK: And for the moment, the Washington press corps is reliving a time when an anonymous source helped shape the course of modern American history.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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