Reporters and Anonymity: Two Tales

Written by Adam Goldberg, Co-Founder

The last several weeks have seen notable episodes involving anonymous sourcing. In one instance, journalists have called out the dangers of being forced to reveal their anonymous sources while, in the other, reporters decried a journalist who used anonymous sources to write what they say are false things about those reporters and others. As these episodes show, there’s a whole lot of inconsistency in the media when it comes to anonymity.

The first instance arises from a U.S. District Court decision ordering a former Fox News journalist to sit for a deposition and reveal certain of her sources for stories discussing an FBI investigation into whether a Chinese-American scientist, a naturalized U.S. citizen, lied on her immigration forms. After executing search warrants on her home and office and six years of investigation, the government decided not to bring charges. About a year after that the decision, materials apparently taken during the FBI searches found their way to Fox News, allegedly causing her serious harm. The scientist sued several government agencies for violating her rights under the U.S. Privacy Act by leaking the materials seized during the searches. After unsuccessfully trying to determine the government sources for the Fox News stories through years of discovery, the federal judge ordered the reporter to reveal her sources in a deposition.

Not surprisingly, news-media advocates criticized the decision and called out the potential negative impacts this decision could have on investigative journalism. They may be right about those negative impacts, and the judge might’ve gotten this one wrong. But, note this article by the superb CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy. Neither he nor any of the quoted media advocates express any empathy for the victim of the hitjob or her right to get to the bottom of who seemingly broke the law and harmed her. Apparently, she should just go quietly without any justice.

The fact is, we at Trident earn our keep in part by working with reporters and news outlets willing to use anonymous sources to print what they deem are newsworthy allegations even in the face of on-the-record denials or the reporters being patently used to advance their sources’ agendas. Darcy’s and the advocates’ failures to even acknowledge the victim in this instance – and the harm anonymous leaks (especially anonymous government leaks) can do – is striking.

This brings us to the second episode and a startingly different reaction to the use of anonymous sources. A few weeks ago, Variety published a lengthy story (since revised a bit) relying on many anonymous sources. It alleged that Jeff Zucker wanted to buy CNN and took several steps to do so and it reported on various purported events. In addition to reporting on Zucker, the story included harsh assertions (based on, you guessed it, anonymous sources) against two prominent journalists: Tim Alberta (who wrote the lengthy Atlantic story that apparently ended Chris Licht’s tenure at CNN); and Dylan Byers (a Puck media reporter who has reported extensively on CNN). By some accounts, Variety’s main narrative was false as were many of its allegations, including those against Alberta and Byers.

What was so striking about this episode was the fact that many journalists (apparently rightly) criticized Variety’s reporting of anonymous allegations in the face of Zucker’s and the reporters’ on-the-record denials. I side with Alberta and Byers here – I’ve never seen a story report so many allegations that are immediately followed by denials. But, it’s striking when reporters rally around their own but not around other targets of anonymous allegations that are similarly denied on the record. Here’s Oliver Darcy reporting on what Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief, told him:

And Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, told me in a scathing on-the-record statement Tuesday that the prominent magazine had ‘on numerous occasions … made it clear’ to Variety that ‘they were planning to publish countless anecdotes and alleged incidents that never happened.’ Goldberg added that Variety ‘did so anyway.’

If I had a dollar for every client where this was true….

Byers himself wrote a very thoughtful piece on the episode. For me, here’s the key excerpt:

On Tuesday afternoon, as my phone was buzzing with texts and calls about the Variety story, I set everything aside for nearly two hours to have coffee with an entertainment industry C.E.O. here in Los Angeles. After mentioning the Variety piece to him, he relayed his own litany of frustrations with media organizations that had published wildly inaccurate claims about him and his company, and that misconstrued the narrative around his industry.

He didn’t mind criticism, he said. He didn’t even mind it when reporters made mistakes. What did bother him, he said, was the way in which certain reporters and editors had started simply belittling facts that ran counter to their narrative—even when these facts were pointed out to them on the record, and before publication. And because these reporters and editors worked for reputable brands with long histories, their reporting was taken as fact.

This is a complaint I have heard myriad times from C.E.O.s and other industry leaders in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and New York. Needless to say, it can sometimes be hard to sympathize with the man or woman raking in tens of millions of dollars who is nevertheless perturbed by what they view as unfair treatment in the press. Then again, my own role as a media reporter has made me keenly aware that there are occasions in which their complaints are valid—and, having been on the receiving end of it from time to time, including now, I must say it doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.

Kudos to Byers here. The fact is that news outlets rely on anonymous sources far too often, and this is especially true when serious allegations are denied on the record by allegations’ targets. It would be helpful to all if more than a few journalists and media reporters noted this fact and took steps to stop it.

On a final note, if you’d like to read about one more recent media debacle (one in which the Atlanta Journal Constitution was forced to fire one of its long-time reporters), check out this story on a report gone wrong about the University of Georgia’s football program.