For decades, readers have complained about newspapers quoting people without giving their names. Anonymous quotations confuse the public, encourage journalistic dishonesty and allow bureaucrats and politicians to smuggle information into print under cover of darkness.
Nevertheless, the practice grows steadily. Today, strangely, it appears most often in high-prestige newspapers that have rules ostensibly limiting it.
On Thursday, the New York Times carried 14 stories in which someone spoke "on condition of anonymity." A piece from Baghdad, for instance, reported that two Iraqi TV correspondents were kidnapped, according to an official of their station, "who spoke on condition of anonymity." Another story said the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was about to hire a new director, according to officials "insisting on anonymity." Material in a piece headed "Heroin Implants Turned Puppies Into Drug Mules" came from someone speaking on "the condition of anonymity." A New York banker was to be appointed, Qatar and the Saudis were planning to fund the Palestinians, Israel expected to tear down two more outposts, and those anti-Muslim cartoons from Denmark were causing anguish in Europe -- all according to persons appearing in print incognito.
Most newspapers quote anonymous sources, and in Canada the practice may be as widespread as in the U.S. In the mid-1990s William Thorsell, then the editor of The Globe and Mail, was appalled by the anonymous words he saw spreading through the paper. He called a meeting to address the problem, but as I recall the occasion, few staffers were impressed by his concern. Today the Globe uses this device for even trivial reasons. When the University of Toronto picked a new president last year, the Globe reported that a senior professor considered the appointee "more of a manager than a leader." The professor "spoke on the condition of anonymity."
Why? The Globe didn't say. Since the professor has tenure, the president can't fire him. Did he imagine that if he spoke his mind on this less than world-shaking point, the president would send down a bolt of lightning and obliterate his future? Probably he's just timid by nature.
Geneva Overholser, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, has suggested greater candour in describing sources. She noted that when National Public Radio was firing a broadcaster, the Washington Post reported that "An NPR executive who declined to be quoted by name" said the man in question lacked the qualities needed. Overholser proposed that the Post should have said the quote came from an executive who "didn't have the guts to criticize on the record but was happy to poison the well anonymously, which we eagerly enabled him to do." She further suggested the Post could describe a secretive political source as someone "always eager to slime an opponent with impunity."
The New York Times deserves special scrutiny, not only because it uses anonymity so promiscuously but because it should have learned long ago that clandestine quotes carry profound dangers. In 2003 Jayson Blair created the worst scandal in the paper's history with a series of fake stories that often depended on anonymous quotes from people who didn't exist anywhere except in his own imagination. A piece in Editor & Publisher said that the Times showed "an addictive tolerance for anonymous sources, the crack cocaine of journalism."
Partly because of the Blair case, the Times management issued new guidelines on confidential news sources. They ordered that anonymous quotes be used sparingly, and only when the Times can't otherwise print reliable and newsworthy information. They said reporters should avoid automatic references to sources who "insisted on anonymity" or "demanded anonymity," a rule the Times now breaks daily. Last year the paper and Judith Miller both suffered more torment (she went to jail) over the concealed sources she used in reporting on national security -- another reason editors should hesitate to print words without names attached.
But even if anonymous quotations annoy the readers and get newspapers into trouble, they are now so much a part of the system that driving them out begins to look impossible. It may be that there are sources, and maybe even journalists, who believe that what they say will be taken more seriously if anonymity is part of the package. A fact is just a fact, but a fact delivered by a nameless "official" smells of intrigue.
Newspapers seem now to operate on the firm principle that they don't use anonymous sources except when they do. Journalists love the idea of transparent government; they rarely show much enthusiasm for transparent journalism.