Politics & Policy

An Open Letter to the Mainstream Media’s Anonymous Sources

President Trump at the White House, February 2, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
It’s time for you to man up and identify yourselves.

Dear anonymous sources,

I must confess, you’re helping the mainstream media create some gripping and troubling content.

I’m not sure which of your stories stands out the most. Is it the portrait you painted almost two weeks ago, of a president in his bathrobe compulsively watching the news? Yesterday’s story of a National Security Council in “turmoil,” filled with staffers who “struggle to make policy” to fit President Trump’s tweets? The report in Politico that Trump’s personnel concerns extend “beyond his embattled national security adviser” and that Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus may be on the chopping block, with “Trump campaign aides” drafting “lists of possible Priebus replacements”? The CNN report that “multiple current and former US law enforcement and intelligence officials” have “corroborated some of the communications detailed in a 35-page dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent”?

The list goes on and on. You’ve been leaking relentlessly since the very first days of Trump’s presidency, making the president look like a “clueless child,” as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza put it. Political Twitter amplifies your voice, with countless concerned citizens retweeting the stories you helped create, appending dire worries that “we’re all going to die.”

You’re helping build and sustain an atmosphere of national anxiety and even (in some quarters) outright hysteria. You’re leading us to believe that the nation is in the very worst of hands, with incompetent and malicious people at the helm, ready or even eager to plunge the nation into new wars and completely unable to handle new crises as they emerge.

You may very well be right. Certainly the administration’s rollout of its controversial executive order on immigration was a festival of incompetence and cruelty. There’s the compelling and seriously troubling evidence that national-security adviser Michael Flynn may have lied to Vice President Pence about the nature of his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. The public spectacle of Trump responding to a North Korean missile launch while in the middle of dinner at his resort was bizarre.

Then again, you may well be wrong. You’ve led us astray more than once. You’ve offered competing and incompatible stories about the allegedly “botched” special-forces raid in Yemen. A Washington Post blow-by-blow detailing an alleged confrontation between the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, and Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon had to be significantly revised. And let’s not forget that one or more of you leaked an “excerpt” of a transcript of Trump’s call with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto that made it appear that Trump had threatened to invade Mexico, after which American and Mexican officials alike denied that any such threats were made.

Simply put, I don’t trust you, and you haven’t given me any reason to change my mind.

Simply put, I don’t trust you, and you haven’t given me any reason to change my mind. Because you won’t go on the record, we’re left with vague descriptions from reporters. You’re supposedly “familiar with” the matter. What does that mean, exactly? Some of you have allegedly spoken with the president. Some of you have spoken with those who’ve spoken with the president. How far down the game of “telephone” are you? Can we truly believe your claims?

I’ve used anonymous sources before, but in a context where I could verify core claims by reference to other, external facts. And I know that anonymous sourcing can be an indispensable aspect of journalism. But let’s be honest, this is getting out of hand.

We keep hearing that Trump is a unique threat, that he’s violating the “norms” of constitutional governance and driving our republic straight toward the cliff of autocracy and conflict. But if this is the case, why aren’t you speaking out on the record so that we can evaluate your credibility and motivations? Why is the “fear of reprisals” (to quote one New York Times story) driving you so far underground?

Are you worried that Trump might fire you? If you actually do know what you’re talking about and have truly valuable insight, you’d be unemployed just long enough to appear on Meet the Press and ink a book deal.

Given the gravity of the accusations, your continued anonymity tells me nothing good. The “career civil servants” among you may be little more than partisan bureaucrats, using hyperbole to fool gullible reporters. The aides and appointees may be mainly jockeying for advantage, hoping to humiliate opponents to gain their own seat at the table. Or, if you’re right, and this president truly is dangerous, your anonymity raises concerns about your courage. Men and women have died for this nation, and you’re not willing to risk your GS rating to save it from incompetence or authoritarianism?

One of the reasons why the public has lost trust in the so-called elite is that it often appears that they’re far more interested in protecting their own careers than in serving the public. Using the press to fight your bureaucratic wars does nothing to dispel that perception. If you believe this president is a menace, go on the record. Give the public a chance to test your credibility. If airing the truth is that important to you, it’s the least you can do.

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