Speaking candidly, journalists are truly snakes

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In 1989, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm published her famous essay, "The Journalist and the Murderer," with its notoriously overheated opening sentence: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

This was back in the era when the New Yorker specialized in overheated and overhyped essays, including "The Fate of the Earth" by Jonathan Schell, which argued that all normal life must cease until we eliminate nuclear weapons. Malcolm had a more modest target: journalists who get their information by misleading their sources. But from her rage, you would think it was nuclear war.

I always thought that Malcolm's complaint was ludicrous. An arrangement between a journalist and a source is a business deal like any other, I reasoned: mutually exploitative. Both parties must believe they are better off, or they wouldn't make a deal. There is no reason to suppose that deals between journalists and sources are uniquely exploitative or inherently one-sided. A source usually has his or her own agenda. Journalists don't have subpoena power. People talk because they want to. I still feel that way, pretty much. But I've been taken aback by a little study I've conducted over the past few weeks.

All these years, a second controversy over journalists and sources has been going on at the same time as the one over Malcolm. This one involves the use of anonymous sources. In the Age of Transparency, when government officials and business executives are supposed to fill out a form and put it on the Internet every time they scratch their behinds, why should journalists expect to be able to say simply, "trust us" when they report controversial information?

Anonymous sources

Acknowledging that this is a legitimate question, the higher-toned media have attempted to establish rules about when it is permissible to use an anonymous source, to hold these occasions to a minimum, and to require the reporter to say why, in this case, a source was permitted to remain anonymous.

These explanations are hilarious. Together, they paint a portrait of the journalist as a con artist, constantly preying on innocent non-journalists, urging them to betray their friends and business associates. And they do. In short, they tend to prove Malcolm right. Journalism is about betrayal: betrayal of sources by reporters, betrayal of friends, colleagues, family members by sources.

If you do a database search of just two newspapers -- the Washington Post and the New York Times -- for just two phrases, "requested anonymity" and "asked not to be identified because," for just a few weeks each, you get a flood of examples.

People agreed to talk to reporters but requested and received a promise of anonymity:

- "because they feared being ostracized"

- "for fear of retribution" or "repercussions" or "reprisals"

- "to discuss private matters"

- "because the Colts had not yet announced the move"

- "to speak frankly" or "candidly"

- "to discuss sensitive issues"

- "because the decision has not been made public"

- "because the issue is politically sensitive"

- "because they were not authorized to speak on the record"

- "to speak more freely"

- "because the investigation is ongoing"

- "to give a candid assessment"

- "because the team was not commenting publicly"

- "to protect her relationship with the company"

- "because he and Mr. Smith are friendly"

- "because he did not want to alienate the administration"

- "because he was departing from the official line that all is well in Mogadishu"

- "because of his diplomatic position" or "in keeping with protocol"

- "because they were not allowed to talk about the information"

- "because the talks are confidential" or "because the information was private"

- "because of the delicacy of the situation"

- "because he feared Mr. Khan might take revenge"

And so on. These all seem like excellent reasons not to talk to a journalist. But they all amount to the same reason: because I'm not supposed to. And yet all of these people did in fact talk, along with dozens more every day. They did so risking Mr. Khan's revenge and their friendship with Mr. Smith, violating their own promises of privacy or confidentiality, ignoring the delicacy of the situation or their lack of authorization.

Currying favor

Why do people answer questions they shouldn't? Sometimes it really is in their organization's or their own self-interest, whatever the official policy may be. Sometimes it's a craven hope of currying favor with the reporter for the next time. Sometimes it's because they're flattered to be asked or simply because they were asked, flatteringly or not. It's amazing how many people don't realize, or forget, that they can tell a reporter to just go away.

There is no escaping, though, the likelihood that the reporter has conned this person into saying something impolitic or even dangerous.

And why do reporters rely so heavily on unnamed sources? Sometimes that's the only way to get important information. But sometimes it's a bluff on the part of the reporter: An anonymous source inside the administration sounds more impressive than Joe Blow, assistant secretary of Transportation. In fact, one anonymous source can be turned into half a dozen different people. She can be a "White House official," and "one person who attended the meeting," and "a source high in the administration" and "a person familiar with the administration's thinking" -- all in the same article.

Anyway, I've had to conclude that the real world is much closer to the one Malcolm described 22 years ago -- a film-noir nightmare of betrayals and broken promises -- than the sunny landscape of mutually beneficial transactions that I had previously imagined.

Michael Kinsley
Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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