Thursday, September 13, 2018

For the Record: Anonymous Sources

Some imbecile was proving to me that Bob Woodward's use of anonymous sources was connected to the fact, not previously known to me, that the "MSM" and Hillary Clinton were in conspiratorial cahoots in the 2016 campaign:

Guy really didn't get it (that inviting a press to a PR function two days before something you really really really want them to cover and making an attempt at "framing the message" is not an abnormal thing in the Great World). He thought I must have misread the evidence:

You do understand, on the subject of anonymous sources, that they are not a trick method of covering reporters who make stories up instead of reporting them; that the source is a real person who has a reason for withholding her or his name, though it might be a fairly shoddy one, but it's usually just "I don't want to get fired", which seems like a good reason to me, and not an indication of whether or not they're telling the truth. And if it's an edited story the editor has to know who the source is (as Ben Bradlee knew the identity of Deep Throat, or those Washington Post stories wouldn't have been published, and as the Times op-ed editor knows the identity of the anonymous member of the Republican resistance cell in the White House). People are willing to say things they might otherwise be afraid to say if there's hope their boss doesn't know they did it. The way it works is far from ideal, I'm sure, but every so often an anonymous source tells you something you really needed to know. Like the White House is being run as a criminal conspiracy. Nobody who knows that from the inside is just going to go on TV to chat about it with Chuck Todd.

Bob Woodward as book writer doesn't report to an editor, I guess, but he constitutes a whole company at this point in his career, with assistants, copy editors and indexers, fact checkers and deputy interviewers, and people who transcribe tape, of which he is the editor-in-chief himself. He follows exhaustive procedures to collate reports and make sure he can corroborate all the statements he can with accounts from other sources and original documents. Which is not to say that everything in his book is true!

But what's wrong with it isn't that he's making shit up. It's that people lie to him, and he has no methodology, ultimately, for knowing when, other than the corroboration technique. His sources have axes to grind, errors and crimes to hide, and a spin they want to put on their stories, and it's a feature of the typical Woodward book that you can just about identify the sources by who comes off as a hero—in this case, apparently, the lawyer John Dowd, the economic adviser Gary Cohn, and the former staff secretary and wife-beater Rob Porter. When Woodward tells you, in words, what John Dowd was thinking on a particular date, that isn't because he made it up, and it isn't because Kellyanne Conway told him, it comes from John Dowd: which doesn't prove Dowd really thought that thing, but you know that's who said it.

If you understand this—that Woodward isn't a novelist on the one hand, and hasn't been an investigative journalist for 40 years on the other, just a monologue collector, who people use to "get their stories out" and make themselves look good—you can understand how to get something out of Fear. It's not the anonymity of the source that's a problem. You'll be able to guess who it is, without difficulty, much of the time. It's remembering that their goal in being sources is self-serving, and you need to read it all critically.

Nice piece to read, by the way, by Pete Vernon at Columbia Journalism Review.

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