Thursday, April 22, 2004

The problem of attribution

In the L.A. Weekly, David Ehrenstein is laying out the problem with "unnamed sources". He's unimpressed with their history (thinking their importance overblown) and brings up one writer whose reliance on them has affected the recent war: Judith Miller.

“It’s all PR,” scoffs Nation scribe and author Eric Alterman, who, on tour for his most recent work (The Book on Bush), speaks excitedly of a public attuned to Bush administration outrages and eager to hear from a press involved in something other than perpetual fealty to the powers that be. “The Times has apologized for Jayson Blair, but it hasn’t apologized for Judith Miller!” says Alterman. “That I’d like to see!”

Miller, a Pulitzer Prize winner of until recently no small journalistic repute has long been considered a large feather in the Times’ cap. But her reporting on Iraq, in which claims concerning Saddam Hussein’s apparently mythical weapons of mass destruction were made through her by both a clearly identified Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and an unidentified man in a baseball cap “standing off in the distance,” who military “sources” had told Miller had told them about them has been widely — and deservedly — criticized. So much so that a recent Times profile of Chalabi (“Chalabi, Nimble Exile, Searches for Role in Iraq,” March 26) was assigned to a less-than-completely-impressed Dexter Filkins. (Miller did not respond to an e-mail seeking her side of the story.)
What strikes me about this issue is that it's roughly equivalent to the anonymity/pseudonymity issue, with a roughly similar answer. Unnamed sources do have their place; there are cases where information must come out, but it would be dangerous for names to be named. That said, whenever an unnamed source is used all involved must recognize that it could very well be complete falsehood and treat it with a certain amount of caution. Just as there's a benefit to be found from "namelessness", there's a price, and that price is having everything you say questioned.

Ehrenstein makes a good point when he quotes Russ Baker saying "Miller's formula...goes like this: Promise the bosses at your paper that you will get scoops, then cut deals with highly placed individuals to serve as their conduit to the front pages". He's right when he declaims the over-reliance on unnamed sources and the damage it's done. The problem, though, is not merely that reporters aren't being skeptical enough, but that those to whom reporters are reporting are often not skeptical enough. When people hear "unnamed source", they should take it with a grain of salt, and have this danger pointed out to them. Yes, Watergate affected opinions, but that was a long time ago.

Unfortunately, however, it looks like since that doesn't serve anybody's interests, it's not going to happen. Well, it may serve the interests of the Union...

but it's been a long time since that's really mattered.

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