I'm tired of hearing from sources who speak to reporters on condition of anonymity.
Because they are mostly weasels - that's why.
Sources quoted by reporters anonymously are usually speaking anonymously because they are legally prohibited from speaking. That makes them lawbreakers, for starters -- and reckless lawbreakers, because they are taking risks with their careers. Alternatively, they are speaking anonymously because they want to actively undermine the people they are working for, whether in government or private industry. That makes them disloyal.
As I said: Weasels.
That is, assuming the "anonymous sources" exist at all. It's far too easy for a reporter to invent an "anonymous source" to fire a political zinger on the reporter's behalf.
James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal had a good example of a weaselly anonymous source this past week:
Tom Vilsack has dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Associated Press reports.
A stunned nation has only begun to grapple with questions such as: Tom Vilsack was running for president? And: Tom who?
Somehow the news got out early. An Associated Press dispatch filed just before noon Eastern Time said:
Vilsack was scheduled to make a formal announcement later in the day. The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting the Democrat's statement.
Normally this would prompt one of our "nice of him not to pre-empt the statement" wisecracks, but the AP apparently realized how silly this is. Another version of the dispatch, a little under an hour later, read as follows:
Vilsack was scheduled to make a formal announcement later in the day. The officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity even though they were pre-empting his statement.
Still, wouldn't "because" have been more accurate than "even though"?
Good point, Mr. Taranto.
Anonymous sources should be few and far between, to be used only in cases of absolute necessity -- on the order of once or twice a year, or once or twice a month at most. Instead, we are treated to a daily parade of anonymous sources, some of them spreading classified or confidential secrets, often to the detriment of our national security.
In addition, many of them seem to conveniently mouth political talking points -- without taking responsibility for them. Those talking points, not surprisingly, seem to match more or less what the reporter himself/herself seems to believe.
Here's an example from today's New York Times, in an article carping about the dismissal of U.S. Attorneys -- who serve, after all, at the will of the president:
In response, a senior Justice Department official said the reviews, which focused on management practices within each United States attorney’s office, did not provide a broad or complete picture of the prosecutors’ performance.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of personnel information, said, “The reviews don’t take into account whether the U.S. attorneys carried out departmental priorities."
Mind you, Clinton's White House made a blanket dismissal of about 70 U.S. Attorneys who had served under the previous administration. There were no "reviews" taking account of "whether the U.S. attorneys carried out departmental priorities."
But wouldn't you know? -- the New York Times found an "anonymous source" to attack President Bush for taking action far less breathtakingly political than the blanket dismissal of some 70 U.S. Attorneys by Bill Clinton's administration. Can we talk to that anonymous source? No. Can we weigh his/her biases to determine whether he/she has any bone to pick in this debate? No. The reporter has attacked the current adminstration's policy with a weak and inconsistent argument and has dressed up that weak, inconsistent argument with the clothing of anonymous officialdom. It's a "senior" Justice Department "official," wouldn't you know, so the weak talking point sounds pretty good, doesn't it?
I think it's time to start calling reporters out on the anonymous sources. If a source doesn't have the right to speak or the courage to speak openly on the record, why should we listen? With rare exceptions -- such as a report from someone living in a tyranny like Iran or Cuba where speaking freely can get you killed -- there should not be any anonymous sources in the news.
It's hard enough ferreting out reporters who cite invented sources in a way that make fact-checking difficult and rare. When reporters openly cite "anonymous sources," fact-checking is impossible. That raises a big red flag.
When sources don't have the courage to talk openly, I don't need their opinion. Reporters who regularly rely on anonymous sources should be given short shrift.