Anonymous Sourcing Hits Rock Bottom

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

Via Glenn Greenwald’s Twitter feed, check out this astonishing bit of anonymous sourcing by the Politico’s Ben Smith:

The White House is denying that the president bowed to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at a G-20 meeting in London, a scene that drew criticism on the right and praise from some Arab outlets.

“It wasn’t a bow. He grasped his hand with two hands, and he’s taller than King Abdullah,” said an Obama aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

This is ridiculous to the point of parody. There are occasions when anonymous sources are necessary—for the most part, when you have a source who’s providing information about some sort of malfeasance who credibly fears repercussions for passing on what he knows.

This was nothing like that. This was an Obama aide using the cloak of anonymity to make a self-serving, overtly political, patently ridiculous argument he’d never have the guts to make under his own name. Smith and Politico should have laughed this aide off the phone.

Unfortunately, this has become fairly common with Washington journalists. Political reporters crave access. Political operatives know it, and dish it out accordingly. They can dump this crap to a half dozen reporters, then reward those who do them the favor of publishing it with exclusive interviews, a question at the next press conference, or a leaked scoop on some big announcement. The vast majority of the anonymous sourcing you see in Beltway beat stories today has zero to do with whistle blowing. It’s just self-serving flackery.

That doesn’t mean you have to let yourself be used like this, though. Hope Smith at least feels a little dirty.

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12 Responses to “Anonymous Sourcing Hits Rock Bottom”

  1. #1 |  anonymously anarch | 

    This is not a post.

  2. #2 |  D.C. Russell | 

    From your first and next-to-the-last paragraphs, I gather that you consider Ben Smith to be a journalist. Based on this report, I’d be more inclined to characterize him as a gossip columnist.

  3. #3 |  LibertyCowboy | 

    I think this is meant to be satirical. The average reader would see it as ridiculous and Smith would know that.

  4. #4 |  chance | 

    That’s how the game has been played for decades, I’m not sure I see how this is especially egregious. The WH wants to respond to the kerfluffle, but doesn’t want to dignify the critics by acknowledging their complaint. So, staffer joe is told to call Smith and call BS. He stays anonymous because the WH would then either have to punish him for speaking out of turn, or it would have to admit it agreed with him, defeating the purpose of having him do it.

  5. #5 |  john | 

    This is strange, particularly because I remember reading the press secretary saying the same thing at a press conference.

  6. #6 |  Ken Hagler | 

    Given the nature of the “story” the anonymous source is commenting on, I’d say the whole thing started at rock bottom and will never rise above that level.

  7. #7 |  Jim Collins | 

    So would we be having this discussion if this was a Bush aide?

  8. #8 |  Cornellian | 

    I’d like to see the Washington press corp refuse to grant anonymity to sources other than genuine whistleblowers. I’d tell that anonymous aide either you say it on the record or we don’t print it.

  9. #9 |  Drasties - Dutch on the World - World on the Dutch | 

    […] and the source is somewhat critical of Obama, it isn’t the worst grant of anonymity ever (this Politico article probably wins that award)], but other than that, the article is a reasonably instructive and fair […]

  10. #10 |  Drasties - Dutch on the World - World on the Dutch | 

    […] Sargent’s request for a response to the criticisms.  That response revealed what has long been clear:  most establishment journalists do not even pretend any more to have any standards for when […]

  11. #11 |  Politico’s understanding of journalistic anonymity | 

    […] Sargent’s request for a response to the criticisms.  That response revealed what has long been clear:  most establishment journalists do not even pretend any more to have any standards for […]

  12. #12 |  Beltway Anonymity | The Agitator | 

    […] anonymous sourcing is least appropriate when it’s most often used—in political reporting. Washington reporters routinely grant anonymity to political sources for even the most absurd, […]

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