City Paper is not for tourists
A press critic ain’t nuthin’ but a late bottle of Wite-Out. A post-deadline virtuoso. A professional scold. And this month, the city’s most cantankerous presscrit is Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., who lectures mightily on the subject of sources in a two-page Dec. 2 memo to his staff.
The Downie memo (also signed by Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser) reprises the age-old—and largely perfunctory—debate at the Post over the use of “confidential and tendentious sources.”
“Named sources are vastly to be preferred to anonymous sources,” Downie writes. “While it is tempting for reporters who regularly talk to the same sources to simply assume that all conversations with those people are on background, such habits should be avoided. Every time we ask readers to trust an anonymous source we are putting credibility on the line. We should always assume that information provided by confidential informants is weaker than information attributable to real people. This means that reporters need to continue looking for on-the-record sources for significant information even if they already have two confidential sources. We must work as hard as we can to minimize the number of attributions to confidential sources throughout the newspaper.” (Emphasis added.)
The memo follows more than a year’s worth of hectoring on the subject in Bob Kaiser’s internal newsletter Wordplay, where he has complained about the debilitating effect blind sourcing has had on the paper’s credibility.
“I suspect there is a direct correlation between the number of anonymous sources we cite and the skepticism readers feel about their newspaper. Let’s always try to push as hard as we can to get attribution,” Kaiser wrote in the Feb. 19, 1993, Wordplay.
“I think we ought to make a maximum effort to share all we can with our readers about who these sources are, or at least where they are,” he wrote in the May 28, 1993, issue. “Are they sources in the Attorney General’s office? Or sources involved in the dispute? Or even just sources whose work puts them in a position to know details of the case? Or, as a last resort, sources with knowledge of the case?”
Kaiser’s crusade against anonymous sources converted few at the Post, so it’s unlikely that Downie’s new sermon will win any souls. In fact, Kaiser’s directives made such a minuscule impact on the paper that only a couple of the dozen Post reporters and editors I talked to at the end of 1993 could recall having read his plea, and none said the paper was actually pushing them for greater specificity in sourcing. Wordplay cited one victory in the direct-attribution campaign, but it was extremely weak tea: Downie expressed skepticism about the anonymous sourcing in a February 1993 Sunday Style article by Laura Blumenfeld on body piercing. The reporter was urged by her editor to persuade the source to identify himself for publication, which he did.
But convincing the nipple-ring set to go on the record isn’t much of a triumph for Post credibility and trustworthiness—unless George Stephanopoulos and Alan Greenspan have joined the self-mutilators. In fact, if Downie and Kaiser are batty enough to believe that their memo will succeed in paring down the legion of administration sources and congressional sources and sources close to and law enforcement sources and informed sources and diplomatic sources and Hill sources and industry sources that clog the Post, they’re candidates for piercing—of the frontal lobes.
Then again, Downie may have already submitted to brain piercing. His memo sounds as if he has. “Obviously, it is critically important to share with readers any direct interest our sources may have in the story we are writing,” the memo continues. “Sources with axes to grind must be identified as such. Smart sources, particularly in government and increasingly in business, know how to tempt reporters with juicy stories. Smart reporters and editors know how to avoid letting them spin us for their own purposes.”
The day the Post starts identifying all sources who have “axes to grind,” every National section story will double in length. Remember, the Post is the newspaper that spawned Bob “I Don’t Name My Sources Until They Die” Woodward.
Downie’s unspoken assumption is that stories are sourced for the edification of the average reader—the schoolteacher in Suitland. But the paper’s primary intended audience comprises the president, the Cabinet, the Hill, the joint chiefs, the Fortune 500, big-shot lawyers, academicians, and non-Post reporters in town. All of Downie’s high-mindedness about the terms of attribution sails out the window if, say, Secretary of State Warren Christopher winks and whispers on background to Post White House reporter Ann Devroy and tells her that the United States Marines are being deployed to the Golan Heights to open a chain of frozen yogurt stands. You can bet your nose ring that Devroy’s blind story would ride high on Page One the next day.
When Downie’s memo promises that the paper will “continue to recognize a two-source rule for all factual allegations made in Post stories that depend on confidential informants,” what he really means is that the paper will continue to ignore its rule. That’s because the Post is less a newspaper than it is the crackling speakerphone of a never-ending Washington conference-call—the informational nexus of elected officials, regulators, generals, bureaucrats, and less-well-connected reporters.
Rampant blind sourcing isn’t Downie’s fault. Washington sources can dictate the terms of engagement because of Gresh am’s Law of Journalism: Bad—or at least numerous—journalists drive out the good. In other American cities (but not New York City), official sources outnumber reporters; hence, reporters have leverage over city managers, school superintendents, state representatives, mayors, and even governors who would hide behind anonymity if they had their way. But Washington journalists so outnumber sources that the sources call the shots. On a busy day, the White House pressroom resembles the streets of Calcutta, and that’s with only a fraction of the 1,700 accredited presidential pressies present. If a White House honcho wants to peddle a not-for-attribution story, and the Post can’t run it because Downie has raised the paper’s evidentiary standards, the source can always offer his goods to the New York Times.
This scenario isn’t theoretical. Back in the ’60s, the Post threatened to boycott Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s background briefings unless he put them on the record, according to Martin Linsky’s 1986 book Impact. So Rusk called the paper’s bluff. If the press didn’t want to play by his rules, he would simply cancel the backgrounders. When the rest of the press corps bent over for Rusk, the Post backed off.
One would guess that blind sourcing would promote openness in government, allowing sources to dump the state’s nasty secrets to valiant reporters. But in practice, it gives sources greater control over the flow of information—power town’s most valuable commodity—and reduces reporters to beggars for information. Worse yet, it reduces them to flacks, as Secretary of State James Baker III diminished New York Times reporter Thomas L. Friedman. But did the toadying relationship harm Friedman’s career? He’s now a columnist on the Times‘ Op-Ed page.
Blind sourcing survives, in part, because it fosters the self-serving illusion of an adversarial press that beats the truth out of reluctant sources in Washington parking garages. But as Zbigniew Brzezinski points out in Linsky’s book, there is no such thing as an unauthorized leak in the White House, because the leakers are the authorities. Brzezinski, national security adviser during the Carter administration, adds that his own “leaks” were “deliberate acts designed to promote the policy we were trying to implement.”
Blind sourcing reached its zenith in the late ’60s, when the accredited “reporters” from the Soviet press agency TASS were admitted to White House background briefings. The upshot of this was that every member of the Politburo knew who was saying what at White House backgrounders, but the suffering U.S. citizenry was left in the dark.
The TASS anecdote comes from the pen of Benjamin C. Bradlee, snapping-turtle emeritus of the Post, who learned the art of the background briefings in the early ’50s during his term as press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. In a 1972 Post piece, Bradlee railed against the evil of rampant anonymous sourcing in Washington, and demanded to know “how come newspapermen were helping governments give readers the short end of the stick?”
He answered his own question: “Background briefings are seductive” because they make reporters feel important. “They are embraced because they are convenient for the press,” which is eager to have the news poured into its tank. Above all, backgrounders “are useful to the government.”
“[T]he child of background briefings is government propaganda,” Bradlee wrote.
And how we’ve come to love the propaganda. Blind sourcing has become such a Washington ubiquity that we no longer blink when we read in the Post or Times that something happened according to a “source.” Some hyperactive readers even find blind-sourced stories superior to sourced stories that say the same thing because blind sourcing makes the information sound more inside, closer to the powerful people who really know—that is, truer.
If LenBob are serious about reforming Post sourcing rules, we should wish them luck. USA Today has all but banned blind sourcing from its pages (financial columnist Dan Dorfman is the exception). Similar rules apply at the Wall Street Journal. If the Journal wants to state that “something is going to happen” or otherwise infuse a not-for-attribution fact into a piece, the claim must be made in the reporter’s voice. But if the published information proves to be wrong, the editors send it up the writer’s ass.
Fundamentally, sourcing is an editor’s problem. And if Ben Bradlee, the most powerful figure in modern Washington journalism, failed in his campaign for more attribution, will mortals like LenBob succeed?
Quote Quotas The first half of Downie’s Dec. 2 memo instructs Post reporters to recruit “a rich variety of voices” as sources for stories, rather than relying on “the same academics or public figures.”
“We all must look for new specialists—especially women, younger people, people of color, unconventional thinkers, and people who aren’t routinely quoted by us and other media outlets, but who constitute a large part of our readership, and of the general population,” Downie writes.
The frequency with which the Post quotes Norman Ornstein and John Morton and Mark Plotkin and William Schneider and Stephen Hess and Larry Sabato is enough to induce an aneurysm, but the Downie dictum comes perilously close to imposing a “quote quota” on reporters.
“Reporters need to fatten their Rolodexes with new sources,” he writes. “There are female, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, native American, gay, and many other kinds of business people, academics, politicians, performers, artists, and so on….”
What a swell idea! Not just the news every morning with your coffee, but a multicultural colloquium! While expanding the list of sources is always a good idea, does Downie really want his reporters to pack their stories with pandering quotes from females, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and gays? And how the hell will readers know they’re being treated to diverse sourcing unless the ethnic/sexual orientation of the sources is hamfistedly recorded? You can see it now: “Philbert Jones, a bisexual Native American autoworker, said the layoffs at the General Motors plant in Flint spell financial disaster for him. “I’m broke,’ he said.”
If Mr. Downie is anxious to soothe his guilty Ward 3 white male liberal conscience, and is yearning to futz with newly discovered ideas about inclusion and diversity, why doesn’t he resign from the Post and join a support group?
Can You Call a Gay Hispanic to Confirm This? The first sentence of the aforementioned Downie memo states that “several recent events” prompted him to write it, but he never says what those recent events are.
Of the 20 Post editors and writers I phoned this week, none were familiar with the “recent events” to which Downie alluded.
Why Do You Think They Call It Deadline? As long as we’re detailing Downie’s exercises in futility, a Nov. 1 memo from him to the staff about hitting deadlines is worth mentioning.
Earlier this fall, Downie declared in a task force study on copy editing, “We are going to take steps to improve deadline performance by reporters, with consequences for those who don’t improve.”
Those weren’t idle threats: Downie has pushed back by one-half hour the story conference attended by top editors (it’s now at 2 p.m.), and promises that any “story that is unnecessarily filed too late after its deadline is liable to be held out of the next day’s newspaper and be replaced, when possible, with a wire story. Filing late also will jeopardize A-1 play.”
Downie is also establishing earlier deadlines for long features, series, and special projects. “Deadline performance” will be tracked for all staffers and “considered in assignment and compensation decisions.”
You’re a Whore, We Just Haven’t Established the Price Downie fired off another memo to the staff on Nov. 8, banning them from “accepting gifts from newsmakers, news sources, or others that would create a conflict of interest.”
Posties are to send such perishable gifts as fruit, cakes, and turkeys to charities, and then mail a note to the sender informing him of the transfer. “Other gifts,” Downie writes, “clothing, booze, cash, gift certificates, whatever—should be politely returned.”
This is depressing news for me. I had intended to send a toupee to Tony Kornheiser; 25 pounds of chocolates to Tom Shales; a mantel to Steve “It’s Pronounced “Two-Me’ ” Twomey for his Pulitzer; a Casio watch to Bob Kaiser so he doesn’t have to call Post-Haste to hear himself read the time of day any more; my left foot up Richard Leiby’s butt; a map of Washington to the Metro staff; 12 additional bathroom mirrors to Donna Britt; a month’s office space in Tysons Corner to Joel Garreau; a year’s subscription to the Final Call to Richard Cohen; a copy of the GATT treaty with the appropriate sections hit with a highligher to Meg Greenfield; my collected works to Judy Mannhater; a rhyming dictionary to Rita Kempley; the replacement of Jeanne Marie Laskas with Richard Cohen for the Washington Post Magazine; and a cargo container of Prozac to the chronically, clinically depressed Style staff.
Are You the Next Dave Barry? You could be, if you already work for the Washington Post‘s Style section. Dave’s inventor, Sunday Style editor Gene Weingarten, commenced his search for Style writers to put in a three-month rotation in his section in a Nov. 1 posting.
To qualify, the Style person must endure “Occasional mandatory personal appearances in Weingarten’s office” and “The scorn of friends and colleagues.”
Weingarten also posed this riddle for the contenders: “I prance betwixt fear and farce, lest the thistle break my arse. Who am I?”
New Republic Fuck-Ups Watch Having profiled Michael Kinsley in its November issue, Vanity Fair has now assigned Washington Post reporter Lloyd Grove to New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier and New York writer Jennet Conant to Editor Andrew Sullivan.
There is no truth to the rumor that VF has assigned the Post‘s Henry Allen to profile the magazine’s controller, Jean Gandy.
Got a “News Bites” tip? Or a gift for your favorite Postie? Leave a message at (202) 332-2100 (Ext. 320). Or send me a wad of bills in small denominations.