Handling Unknown Sources
I got into the journalism game just before the Internet metastasized from the Military-Industrial Complex into the mainstream world of Joe Lunchbox. It was a rough and tumble game where you spent your days chasing down reluctant participants in an effort to find some, small piece of the truth.
In those days, unnamed sources where shunned, and if you wanted what they claimed to be printed, you had to find at least three people from unrelated entities corroborating the same, basic story. If you didn’t meet this minimal requirement, the story was killed and thrown into the bone yard of unsubstantiated rumors.
And, oh, did I mention that you actually had to give the names and numbers of these three unnamed sources to your editor, who would sometimes call them up and verify what you told him they said before he would sign off on your story.
Back then, it didn’t matter whether you liked the subject you were covering, or if you agreed with their politics. It only mattered that you got his or her side of the story and counterbalanced it with those who disagreed with their take of the world. That doesn’t happen much today.
That’s because the After-Internet(AI) world is filled with scores of so-called advocacy reporters, who inject their opinions and preferences into their own special brand or millenium, selfie, gonzo journalism. They almost always use “unnamed or anonymous sources,” in their articles and their editors, if they have one, don’t seem to care, as long as they are first to break this latest bit of conjecture that they past off as Gospel, according to their particular flavor of ideology.
The biggest difference is that instead of being cold, objective observers, these new reporters are in the game. They are players! It’s as though a referee in a NFL football game, literally grabs the football from the team he favors and scores a touchdown for them.
Am I being a little unfair, I can hear some of you musing? After all, this is the era of Donald Trump, we must take up our roles in the Resistance for the greater good. I say: nonsense.
I would love to read a balanced investigative piece on Donald Trump from the New York Times, where the reporter actually compared Trump’s alleged egregious conduct with his ideological opposites in the same time and arena. It never happens. I have to seek out the whole story myself through my own research. I then have to decide whether the dozens of unnamed sources are real, or just the figments or exaggerations of someone’s imagination, or political agenda.
How Many Times Have They Gotten the Story Wrong?
Journalists, especially at CNN, get really pissed off when President Trump says they’re churning out “Fake News.” But, how many times have they gotten the story wrong? How many times do they have to run corrections and clarifications? Too many.
In 2002, I worked as a reporter covering the Pentagon in a fairly important publication, which still exists, but is a mere skeleton of its former self. The policy of the managing editor was this: if you made a mistake that requires a correction or clarification, you had to explain it to your editor, then you had to explain it to the managing editor’s assistant and finally you would have to explain it to him.
As it happened, I had my first experience with this method of keeping a tight journalistic ship. One week, I attributed a quote to the wrong Pentagon official in a story, when it was his colleague sitting next to him who actually made it. Of course, we ran a correction and I had to explain to three people why and how I screwed up. When I finally got to the managing editor, he listened to my tale of woe and smiled at me, saying:
“I really like your work, but it’s useless to me if it isn’t accurate. If you make a mistake like this again, it will be your last one here. Nothing personal.”
At the time, I left his office with my tail between my legs and felt like my world was about to come to an end. But, from that day forward, I vowed never to use a quote unless I was absolutely sure of what the subject said and who he or she was. I accomplished this by taping every conversation and not relying on my notes alone. And if I was still unsure, I would call the subject and make sure I had it right. It slowed me down, but I got it right and kept my job.
It is that kind of discipline, objectively and fairness that makes journalism a profession and not just another job. This and the lack of integrity are the reasons journalism as a whole has been declared dead by so many, including myself. The reality is that this quest to get it right coupled with fundamental fairness and objectivity no longer exists in the major media.
Instead, journalism has become a political and entertainment vehicle. It has become a self-centered, roll in the hay for those who seek vain glory and a star in the sidewalk of infamy and half truths.