With the recent disclosure that Mark Felt, a 91-year-old retired FBI official, was the legendary anonymous news source from the Watergate scandal, "Deep Throat," and the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to divulge the identity of a source, discussion of "veiled attribution" has moved from accounts of journalists writing fiction under the guise of news to stories about the ability of both anonymous sources and journalists to preserve democracy. Where the likes of Jayson Blair fabricated stories outright, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped to force the resignation of President Richard Nixon more than 30 years ago by consulting "Deep Throat" and corroborating the leads and confirmations Felt provided with information from others. For her part, whatever her motives, Miller appears to have shown that acquiescence is not the only response available to employees of profit-driven news organizations.
Anonymous attribution has long played a crucial role in public affairs reporting, ideally preventing news sources from suffering professional-and sometimes personal-repercussions for supplying sensitive information to journalists. Even the most skeptical editors tend to agree that veiled news sources, while not ideal and somewhat risky without meticulous note-taking and corroboration, are sometimes crucial to the completion of an important and volatile story. On the negative side, anonymous sources often float self-serving trial balloons and level personal attacks on others without being identified themselves. Veiled sources also have been known to suffer delusions of grandeur, exaggerating their claims in helping to dramatize otherwise common news events.
"It is true that some journalists have abused and overused unnamed sources over the years," stated The New York Times on August 15, 2005 in an editorial about Miller. "But in the main, the secret source is not a convenience for the news media or a shortcut for an easy story. He or she is the backbone of a free and independent press. Think about the civil servant who sees a superior lying and breaking the law. Think about the employee who sees a manager whitewashing a report on a hazardous product." Thus, anonymous sources, while less than ideal, often play an important role in the work of investigative journalists.
But what happens when a source of information is not only unknown to readers, viewers or listeners, but is entirely unknown to reporters and editors as well? A Lockian, marketplace-of-ideas proponent might suggest healthier societal debate, while a more cynical observer might suggest that such use results in the shameless tarnishing of personal images by individuals who have no journalistic training whatsoever.
Although such usage isn't restricted to sport, Web news outlets in the realm of sport, as well as unofficial Web sites devoted to coverage of certain teams, lately have been transforming news readers into news makers by asking them to respond to news articles and opinion columns on a daily basis. Web sites feature links with titles such as "Hate Mail," and the columnists whose words trigger vitriolic responses from readers often respond in kind, perpetuating the kind of shouting and contempt for others that many news outlets seemingly have come to champion. One can read an opinion column and then respond to that column immediately, trading barbs with other column readers and perhaps the original author. These message-board "discussions" frequently escalate to the point at which wild accusations about athletes being seen by a friend of a friend smoking marijuana or striking a significant other appear in print-attributed only to anonymous individuals with screen names like "sportsfan1" and "downthedogs."
Here is the real catch: While overzealous sports fans may carelessly defame a high-profile athlete with an ill-informed diatribe on a message board, journalists have taken to monitoring these communications and, in college sports at least, contacting sports information officers for comment. As those who have worked as a Sports Information Director (SID) can undoubtedly attest, there is seldom enough time in the day to complete the many scheduled assignments that await, let alone respond off-the-cuff to salacious allegations that have been derived from an information cattle call.
Unfortunately, the allegations are essentially "laundered" (i.e., given a modicum of legitimacy) through sports information offices, even when an SID (a) staunchly denies an allegation, (b) points out that no credible evidence exists in support of it, and (c) describes why publishing the allegation would be irresponsible. Alas, a denial becomes part of the "emerging" story and, perhaps more damaging from the standpoint of defamation, the allegation and denial may be repeated in subsequent stories, giving the allegation "legs" while portraying the SID as overly protective of the institution and athlete(s) in question. A story grounded in nothing somehow manages to become something through sheer repetition and the inclusion of a legitimate source.
This situation isn't limited to sport, or to the present day. The New York Times reported, in its July 13, 2005 edition, in a story by Saul Hansell on a strategy used by CBS to improve its reputation as a news outlet following the debacle over sources for the National Guard record of President George W. Bush. The Times reported that CBS brass decided to start a kind of news blog, titled "Public Eye," that would allow both television and Internet news consumers to comment on the news and offer suggestions for improvement. With members of the public neither trained in journalism nor particularly knowledgeable about policy developments, this type of "service" would appear ideal for those seeking to float political trial balloons and use "Public Eye" for anything but legitimate news concerns. After all, as The Haldeman Diaries (Putnam) revealed in 1994, it was not so long ago that then-President Richard Nixon would demand that no fewer than 100 vicious phone calls be made to the op-ed desk of The New York Times, demanding a "more moderate" (i.e., favorable toward the White House policy) portrayal of world events. As former Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman explained in his book, the administration considered the calls a success if the content and tone of editorials appeared even slightly less "liberal" in the following days. Will technical advances facilitate even more insidious forms of manipulation?
Whether situated in the sporting arena or in more general news outlets, the types of feedback mechanisms discussed here ultimately have less to do with provoking thought and introspection about important events than in exposing readers and viewers to large amounts of advertising and providing them with a false sense of voice. As Hansell wrote in the Times, "CBS, which is being split off from Viacom, is among the many major media companies expanding their Internet activities, mainly to chase advertising dollars that are now moving online." One way to attract advertisers is to boast of the millions of Internet users who get at least some of their news from a given outlet. As more advertising dollars roll in, more sophisticated approaches with video can be developed, thus attracting more users to the site and generating even more advertising dollars.
One of the first news organizations to appreciate this process was The New York Times Company itself. Internet users have long been able to receive Times articles free of charge after signing up and providing basic demographic information. Staff members assemble advertising fact sheets drawn from those who join the Web site, and with frequent opportunities to interact with other readers-and sometimes with journalists themselves-readers keep coming back for additional news and are exposed to advertising in the process. As the number of people who join the Times' Web site increases, advertising rates do the same, and the process continues. While the Internet is ideal for generating online discussion, it also offers polemicists endless opportunities to defame adversaries without being held accountable, inserting into the marketplace of ideas a series of damaged goods before departing the agora.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005 (17:1),pp.4,15-16.