Media Blog

The Ethics of Anonymity

The New York Times allegation that John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist is based, apparently, on the word of two anonymous “advisers.” “Advisers” covers a pretty wide world in Washington, albeit a smaller one than “former associates.”
The use of anonymous sources is an ethically complex issue in journalism. Normally, anonymity is used to protect somebody who would face retribution or violence for sharing certain information. Since these are, we are told, former advisers, they are not in a position to lose their jobs over the tale they are telling, nor is McCain going to take out a hit on them. This isn’t Pakistan. So why does the Times allow them anonymity in this case? No reason is given by the paper or by its editor in his recent statements.
I am pretty sure that I could start reporting at 3 p.m. today and have a story chock full of anonymous Washington sources alleging that Hillary Rodham Clinton is having an affair with Huma Abedin–and turn in my copy in time to make happy hour tonight. This isn’t just snarky speculation; so far as they are willing to share with us readers, the Times entire report is based on the fact that, as the story says, somebody became “convinced the relationship had become romantic.” No evidence–at least that the Times wants to publish–no blue dress, no answering-machine messages, nada, zip, zilch, sound and fury signifying not much at all.
And therein lies the problem with keeping these sources anonymous. If we knew who they were, we would be in a position to judge whether they seem like credible sources–or we might learn that they have obscure axes to grind. There are people who know things that the New York Times does not know; that’s why these kinds of allegations are usually attached to a name. For instance, these former advisers are possibly quite apt to do what so many other former advisers do: join a lobbying firm. Is the lobbyist with whom McCain is alleged to have had an affair a competitor of theirs? Shouldn’t we readers know? The problem isn’t that the Times is telling us a story–it’s that the Times isn’t telling us the story.

The Times doesn’t even say why they have chosen to keep these sources anonymous; the likely reason is that it was a condition of cooperation and the Times simply wanted the story. I don’t have any strong opinion on whether John McCain had sex with this lobbyist, but to let political operators cower behind anonymity while publishing evidence-free allegations of this nature is wrong.

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