I wrote an earlier blog on anonymous sources being used by media outlets and asked if there shouldn’t be some type of accountability when a media outlet uses an anonymous source that proves to be not just “not right” but patently false. In the business of intelligence such sources’ information does not see the light of day for there is a requirement to corroborate information before it is released and all sources must be identified and validated. In other words, is the source who they claim to be, are they in a position to have obtained the information they’re passing on, is the information directly from one of those mentioned in the intelligence or is it “hear-say” as in I heard it from someone who claims to have been there. Is there corroborating intelligence that the claimed meeting/call/message actually took place, and so on. All these questions and more must be answered in the positive before the intelligence is disseminated to other agencies within the community. There is only one place where this does not apply and it is “Threat” information. All threat information is immediately disseminated community-wide as soon as it is received and then the source is scrubbed (that’s the process of verifying the source’s access to the information and looking for corroborating material.)
I’m writing this blog today because the Washington Post newspaper just printed a correction to a “Bombshell” story it ran in January 2021. The piece was about President Trump’s phone call with a Georgia official about election results. So, now the WasPo says their anonymous source was wrong. It’s the middle of March, almost three months after they ran the piece which was picked up by news services and other media outlets and run throughout the world. Did it have any impact on the Georgia senate races? Did it have any impact on the senators who would try President Trump after his second impeachment? Did it have any impact on how the world viewed the U.S. and the Trump administration? If it didn’t then the WasPo should go out of business because that is their overall goal: influence its readers by giving them the “Truth.” Only here they didn’t give their readers anything like the truth.
So, I ask the question again: Shouldn’t there be some accountability for media outlets using anonymous sources especially when those anonymous sources are merely political operatives who make up stories for political purposes? If we could quantify the damage done by this story should not the WasPo be financially responsible? Knowingly printing false information or not doing sufficient do-diligence to prove that the material their anonymous source is providing is fact and not fiction can result in defamation or libel suits. The Supreme Court has determined that this provision does not apply to public figures but shouldn’t it? Public figures shouldn’t be maligned anymore than private persons. Were I one of the two Republican candidates for the Georgia senate seats I might just file a civil suit against the WasPo for printing fictitious information about the President’s attempts to influence the Georgia elections which might just have swung the balance of two very close elections. And if I were the Secretary of State in Georgia I might just be looking through the books for something along the lines of election fraud on the part of the WasPo in that they printed something that influenced the election without verifying whether it was true. They’ll blame it on their anonymous source but that source doesn’t edit and print the newspaper. Accountability? Given the influence such instrumentalities wield we must move them out of the “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission” mindset they seem to have taken over the last few decades.
Remember, all media outlets take sides, they did even before Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense.” A wise person would take heed of the saying, “Consider the source.”
If an unnamed (anonymous) source provides information that is later verified by other sources, we have some confidence that the anonymous source was indeed a real source and not speculation by the newspaper staff.
If an unnamed source provides information that is later determined to be false or misleading, then we are left to wonder whether the source was simply unreliable or whether there is another reason for the falsehood. For the latter case, we can rightly ask if the information was unfounded speculation by the newspaper or intentional lying. Whatever the case, the burden of proof is on the newspaper to show the source was verifiably reliable and that the lie was not intentional on the part of the newspaper.
In an earlier era, the WaPo had higher standards, as evidenced in the book “All The President’s Men,” by Woodward and Bernstein.