Democracy dies in darkness — among other places

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Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

Early last year the Washington Post, after vetting about 500 candidate slogans, adopted as its motto the phrase “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

An interesting choice, considering that a defining amount of the Washington Post’s content is currently derived from anonymous sources.

Here’s another slogan that’s been knocking around newsrooms and J-schools for decades: “Reporters are only as good as their sources.”

Indeed.

The problem here is that the Post’s use of anonymous sources means readers can’t tell how good the Post’s sources are, and by extension how good the Post is.

The sources might be terrific, like Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, during Watergate, or a bit squishier, like Andrew McCabe and James Comey today. But the reader doesn’t know until much later. Worse, the paper doesn’t really know until much later.

The Post’s, or any other paper’s, use of anonymous sources should prompt its readers to ask themselves several questions, including:

Are the sources reliable?

Do the sources have an agenda, and if so what is it?

Does the paper have an agenda, and if so, what is it?

Are the sources using the paper to further their agenda? Is the paper using the sources to further its agenda?

How can readers tell if the Post’s sources are reliable, other than on the strength of the Post’s assertion that they are?

Does the source have a public purpose for leaking, or is his or her motive more personal — vengeance, settling a score or currying favor, for instance.

Does the paper have a public purpose for printing the anonymously sourced story, or are its motives politically- or business-driven, or even voyeuristic?

What are the real stakes for the sources and the paper? Is the leaker remaining anonymous because he or she “is not authorized to speak on the matter” (a boiler-plate rationalization that has come to be routinely used in news stories), or because, like Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning he or she is flirting with treason?

And so on.

In the past year the Post has published scores of stories about Trump that are anonymously sourced, most of them critical. Critical enough for a reader, even one with a left-leaning bias, to conclude that the paper is out to get Trump — by delegitimizing his election, by calling his judgment and sanity into question, and by picking up on his bread-crumb sins.

The one thing we know with certainty about the Post’s sources is that, regardless of their motives, they are unwilling to pay the price that might be extracted for revealing their names. Or more plainly, they’re too chicken to come forward.

Most American papers, and especially ones whose content is nationally circulated like the Post, demand that all meetings and all records be open.

They don’t hesitate to print classified information to the detriment of national security. Today’s papers will print military secrets in time of war, publication of which will endanger both troops in the field and the American People.

(The Post will also print open source information that can be just as damaging with even less hesitation — as when it printed the names of 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

A team of a couple dozen Post investigative reporters spent two years collecting the information from non-classified sources. While in theory anyone could have done so, it’s doubtful that the intelligence agencies of most of the world’s 200-plus countries had the resources or the knowledge of the United States to have done the same. Ditto al Qaeda or the Islamic State. It would be interesting to know to what extent the Post reached out to anonymous sources to compile its lists.)

Yet the press defends with equal vigor its constitutional and moral right to conduct its news and information gathering in secret.

The fact that this is hypocritical is self-evident but beside the point.

The real issue is that there are times when government’s ability to govern effectively, let alone to govern justly, is compromised by its inability to keep secrets. And by the press’ refusal to respect the need for a measure of privacy in the deliberative process — try fashioning a compromise in a public negotiation — or to respect the privacy of public officials.

OK, you’re going to tell me that Trump is a gross, boorish man. You’re right. So were Andrew Jackson and Lyndon Johnson, and a lot of other Presidents.

It used to be that presidents were routinely profane and insulting in private. The press kept it off the record. Today it attempts to weaponize non-public speech.

To be sure, there are plenty of examples where the use of anonymous sources has served the public good. And plenty of counter-examples as well.

The Post and most of the rest of the national press corps has routinized the use of anonymous sources to the point where American journalism is turning into one long anonymous letter, and that is damaging its integrity, credibility, legitimacy and the support of the American people for the First Amendment.

It’s true that Democracy can die in metaphorical darkness, as the Post asserts. It’s also true that it can be killed by criminally negligent homicide in broad daylight or assassinated at high noon.

Which is why the most important question you can ask the writer of an anonymously sourced story is also the most obvious: Who told you that?

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.