Friday, March 13, 2009

says who?

We all talk a lot about the dangers of anonymity, especially when it comes to using anonymous sources to report on major issues. There's little accountability, problems with credibility.

In an updated piece on "the distorting effect of anonymity" posted yesterday on, Glenn Greenwald gets closer to the real damage that can be done when journalists are too quick to grant anonymity: manipulation -- and outright distortion -- of the message. In order to get the story, to look like an insider, journalists get used. The public gets deceived.

From his piece:

But the most important point is that journalists are not required to serve as message-carriers. The mere fact that you agree to a "background" discussion doesn't obligate you to then go forth and obediently publish whatever the person on background utters. If all they're doing is trying to inject claims (or "spin") into the public discussion in order to be able to influence or manipulate the debate without accountability (because they're allowed by the journalist to do so anonymously), then the journalist can -- and should -- simply refrain from allowing themselves to be used in that way. There's no value, and there is often great harm, when a journalist passes on false claims or even just "spin" on behalf of a political figure whose identity the journalist is shielding from the public.

There are very narrow circumstances in which, virtually everyone agrees, anonymity is warranted -- when genuinely secret information is being revealed or someone is risking something in order to disclose matters of public interest. But far more often than not, that isn't how anonymity is used. Instead, it's typically a weapon wielded by government officials and other politically influential people to use the journalist to disseminate information -- often dubious or outright false information -- to the public while cowardly hiding behind the accountability-free protective shield erected for them by the journalist.

And more:

Justified anonymity is a vital tool for exposing government secrets and other forms of wrongdoing, but baseless grants of anonymity by journalists -- as the Bush era conclusively proved -- is the bond that keeps reporters and the politically powerful working in sync rather than adversarially, often with highly misleading and deceitful effects. That sort of anonymity is just another instrument used to shield the operations of the Beltway from scrutiny and public disclosure, and is the fuel that drives the incestuous, cooperative government-media monster.

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