October 04, 2004

Secrecy and Sources

Lucy Dalglish, head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press connects the dots in this Newsweek interview between the Bush administration's secrecy policies and dangers to freedom of the press:

After 9/11, and I saw all these secrecy initiatives coming out, we’re exactly where I thought we’d be. Because when you have a secrecy regime set up, people in the government believe that the only way for the public to get information is through leaks. And the only way journalists can persuade their sources to talk is if they grant them confidentiality. When that happens, the government says, “We’ve gotta know who these leakers are.” And they make kind of a show of trying to figure out internally who the leakers might have been. [And when they can’t find the leakers], they say, “Your honor, the only way we can find out who broke the law by releasing this information is if the journalists tell us.” Ultimately the only folks who end up going to jail are the journalists. (Emphasis added.)

There are many good arguments to be made against the use of anonymous sources, particularly when they serve -- as they mostly do -- as nothing more than partisan baiters in meaningless political stories or dish out pablum on background. Still, journalists need, and the public deserves, access to information and the increasingly inclination by public officials is to withhold rather than release.

The New York Times is right to resist the Justice Department's attempts to pry loose telephone records of two Times' reporters and Dalglish is correct to be concerned about growing infringements on freedom of information.

Read this report -- Homefront Confidential -- by the Dalglish's organization. It examines the impact the government's war on terror has had on public access to information and argues that "one has demonstrated that an ignorant society is a safe society." It continues:

"We live in a nation built on the concept of balance. When the government, perhaps with the best of intentions, goes too far in its efforts to shield information from the public, it is up to the public and the media to push back." (Emphasis added.)

Journalists need sources -- insiders with access to information. If some of them have to be anonymous to get the job done, so be it. This doesn't, however, lighten the responsibility journalists have to ensure they aren't being played or had. One source -- on the record, off, on background or anonymous -- does not a story make.

Posted by Tim Porter at October 4, 2004 08:34 AM