Leaks to the Media Rescue
As we witness the most interesting White House terms of our time, leaks are front and center as the driving force in the search for truth and initiating debate. Who would imagine lessons in constitutional law would be a routine part of the newscast? The Washington Post and the New York Times are leading the way in demonstrating the effective way to use sources and leaks to have an impact through investigative reporting. The fascinating political drama in Washington offers a dramatic illustration with developments almost every day. For instance, the public may not have found out about a meeting between Trump cabinet members and an alleged band of Russian petrushkas, except the New York Times got hold of the evidence, forcing Donald Trump Junior to release emails that confirm the report.
Also, transcripts of phone conversations leaked to the Washington Post indicate that President Trump seemed to contradict public statements he made about talks with Mexico over the wall and Australia over refugees.
Deep Throat to the Max
The Watergate scandal is credited largely with opening the door for the anonymous source to be put into play. Had it not been for “Deep Throat” feeding information to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the history of the Nixon Administration may have had a different ending.
Every media organization is not the Post or the Times. The concern some forty years later is that what amounts to blanket anonymity for loose facts can be dangerous, evident by the damaging uncorroborated accusations by unnamed sources that increasingly appear innately on the Internet, but also picked up at times, by print and broadcast media. “Anonymous sources,” “sources close to a situation,” and “…sources with knowledge of the way a person thinks,” can, and have been used to promote a rumor and in some cases to knowingly report a falsehood. There is a potential for the phrases to become overused and hollow. That is partly what allows a “fake news” label to resonate so readily.
I worked for a daily newspaper when they were thick and thriving. My paper required reporters to publish the name, age, and address of people quoted in the paper. So an article looked something like this:
A building at 2 Nowhere Street in East Anytown burned to the ground last night. A witness, Jane Doe, 22, of 3 Somewhere Street, City Heights, said she saw a man running from the scene.
The policy was tedious, not so much for routine interviews or non-threatening feature stories, just painstaking. You just rolled your eyes and kept it moving. But for hostile interviews, it meant you ran the risk of losing an interview trying to get an address. The reluctance was understandable because of their privacy and sometimes their personal safety.
Take into account there was no cable news and no Internet, so the policy seemed to speak to accountability, even if that was not by design. When someone has their name attached to a statement, they have to own it. That kind of reporting policy, however, could not keep up with the times. Still, there is a need to find middle ground for the sake of honesty and truth from both sides. Mistakes cause damage that can run deep and are not readily retracted, if at all. When people cannot rely on the media for honesty and truth, they no longer trust. The result makes for skinny newspapers, low TV news ratings and an insults about credibility that stick.
Freedom of the Press
The Trump Administration is stepping up an offensive against people who leak information and seems poised to take on freedom of the press. Attorney General Jeff Sessions out front, saying, “We must balance the press’s role with protecting our national security and the lives of those who serve in the intelligence community, the armed forces and all law-abiding Americans.”
It’s not crystal clear where Sessions is going with that, but credible leaks and sources are delicate commodities that must be vetted and protected. In the modern day, the leak will not emerge from the shadows in a dark garage with a manila envelope. Too easy to nab. Nowadays, cyber sneaky is sexy and way more clandestine. Except when amateurs get into it. A young government contractor faces serious charges, accused of giving top-secret documents to an online news agency.
That news agency reportedly faxed the document to the government in order to have it confirmed, which in turn allowed the government to trace the source of the leak. So much for protecting the source.
Who’s Grinding the Ax?
People are savvy and routinely try to manipulate reporters to do their dirty work. Trouble is, some reporters end up grinding that ax for them and facing the consequences. That can include damage to their own reputation and often times participating in spreading hurtful, malicious gossip that can end careers and relationships. Along with the usual who, what, when, where, why and how, reporters need to ask, “So, what?”
In the 1980’s when paternity tests became more reliable, I received a steady stream of paternity results involving local celebrities from “anonymous sources’ in the mail, complete with photos. That was before Maury Povich and his, “You are NOT the father!” Fortunately, the television station was not interested in diving into that cesspool. It was a clear attempt to use the media as leverage to negotiate a payoff or damage a reputation. Then came the Internet.
It was actually an experience with the notion of anonymity, loosely, that drew me to television news. At a crime scene, five or six people turned me down for print interviews because they said they did not want to be identified. I was an hour into making the rounds through the crowd when a TV reporter breezed in, late and all animated. I watched every single person who turned me down jump in front of the TV camera. Wait. What!?! Shortly after that, I changed careers from print to television.
I still abide by the principles of accountability and then there’s something my grandmother, Mary used to say. She grew up in the Jim Crow era and was proud to read the newspaper every day. She would remind us of her favorite quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Believe none of what you hear and only half what you see!” I take from that to hear out sources, be skeptical, and search for the truth because the last thing you want is to cause someone’s fanny to be flapping in the wind.
For now, it seems the leakers and the sources are coming to the rescue of the media at a time when the game has changed and the stakes are high.