It is fine for reporters to give anonymity to those who fear retribution if their identity is revealed. But it is wrong to do so just so that the government can advance a message or an agenda without taking responsibility for it. One of the things that I have railed against is the practice of journalists granting anonymity to sources who are speaking with the approval of the government. This allows the sources to say things that can be denied later.
But once in a while, that practice can return to haunt them. Just recently, it looked like White House spokesperson Josh Earnest was caught when he chided reporters for using the words of anonymous sources to contradict what he was telling them, when it appeared that he might well have been the anonymous source he was now contradicting.
It all came to a head in the White House briefing room on Thursday, when Earnest was pressed on an AP report that cited “multiple US officials” who all used the same phrase to describe the intelligence assessment on the Syrian attack: “Not a slam dunk”. Reuters had a similar story, quoting US national security officials, saying there was “no smoking gun” that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, had personally ordered the attack.
For once, the anonymous stories had not gone quite the way the administration had wanted them. The AP story was the result of a demand by its investigations editor earlier in the week that hard questions be asked of intelligence sources.
Earnest tried to bat away questions on the subject. “You’ve got a handful of anonymous individuals who are quoted in that story,” he said.
“Do you disagree with it?” a reporter asked.
When Earnest knocked back another question seconds later, because it was based on anonymous sources, an incredulous reporter shouted out: “Josh, you guys talk to us anonymously all the time and expect us to believe those credible statements.”
“I’m just saying that anonymous sources …” Earnest began.
“But you talk to us anonymously all the time!” said another journalist.
Could Earnest have been one of those anonymous sources he was now suggesting were unreliable? If not, he is certain to have provided others like them, as he admitted. “What you also say to me, on a regular basis when I and others speak anonymously to you, is that you place more credibility in on-the-record statements,” Earnest said, with what looked like a straight face. “So that’s all I’m directing you to right now.”
This practice has become a farce and must stop.