Outside Voices: Eric Engberg Calls For A Time Out On Anonymous Sources

Each week we invite someone from the outside to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we asked Eric Engberg, who spent two decades covering and uncovering Washington for CBS News. His reporting led to the only criminal conviction the government made stick on Oliver North and Engberg headed the reporting team that revealed to the country that the Vietnam veteran honored at the Tomb of the Unknowns was not unknown, but an Air Force pilot from Missouri named Michael Joseph Blassie. For most of the 1990's, Engberg did the "Reality Check" feature on "The CBS Evening News." He was known as one of the most dogged and irreverent reporters in Washington, with one of the great b.s. detectors in the business. Engberg retired from CBS in 2002. When he's not protecting his boat from hurricanes on Florida's West Coast, he continues to obsess over various news stories and contribute to CBSNews.com. A piece he wrote headlined "Blogs As Typing, Not Journalism" stirred up a great argument in the blogging kingdom. Expect to see more of him on Public Eye. As always, the opinions expressed in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices.

Why Fitz Shouldn't Scare Reporters

The actions of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the Plame leak case have caused me to do some reflecting, from my retirement sanctuary, on the practice of anonymous sourcing, journalism ethics and First Amendment law.

As a result -- even though I haven't gotten a subpoena or a Fitz-shove into those cement-floored government quarters with the tasteful barred windows -- I wish to unmask two "highly placed" sources who leaked information to me during my years in Washington.

Shallow Throat #1 -- In 1986, a C-123 airplane carrying supplies to the Contra guerillas in Nicaragua was shot down in the jungle. Unfortunately for Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council, who was running the secret Contra-aid program, the plane was quickly traced to his operatives and the jig was up.

But before the truth dribbled out, as we in the press tried to uncover who was behind the doomed mission, I got call from someone who might know, Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs. After the usual pro forma stipulation that he was speaking "on background" -- has name couldn't be revealed -- Abrams regaled me for 15 minutes with absolute assurances the downed plane was "not part of any U.S. government operation."

It was hogwash, of course, and I never found out whether he purposely misled me or was just a dupe reading an Ollie-prepared script. Abrams's talents at misdirection and concealment did not go unrewarded, and he is now a senior staffer at Ollie's old outfit, the NSC.

Shallow Throat #2 -- Early in the Clinton Administration, I was chasing a story of such small consequence I can't remember its substance. But I do remember talking to presidential aide Rahm Emmanuel, who dipped his voice as though prepared to deliver a mighty secret and said, "Off the record, the president has told his staff to do the right thing for the American people." Emmanuel went on to be elected to Congress, demonstrating the value in politics of a mastery of such brown-nosing.

These episodes are offered to make a point journalists don't want to talk about much: anonymous sources are mostly not public spirited "deep throats" blowing the whistle on bad guys. It's more likely they're covering someone's rear end or spitting out a self-serving party line that sounds more believable in the camouflage of anonymity.

(Often, as in the case of the aide to the deposed shah of Iran who asked me to go off the record because "Barbara Walters would be mad at me" for talking to CBS, anonymity is merely a shield against resentment from the reporters whose calls weren't returned.)

The collapsing news cycle, caused by 24-hour cable channels, plays into the hands of the professional politicians who dispense trivia and spin. Many hurried news executives now care more for "access" than for digging up the truth. The perpetrators of smarm sprayed from ambush are never punished because their identities are protected by Charlie McCarthy reporters.

Writing in the Nov. 7 issue of "The New Yorker," Nicholas Lehmann, a former Washington reporter who is now dean of the Columbia University journalism school, concedes that many of the dealings between reporter and source "don't look very good individually," but the end result "is valuable to society" and should thus be protected.

That argument, widely believed among journalists, does not have history on its side. After all, Fitz didn't create any new laws when he went to court to jail Judy Miller; it was back in 1972 that the Supreme Court ruled, in Branzburg vs. Hayes, that reporters can be subpoenaed before grand juries. Correct me if I'm wrong, but haven't there been a lot of leaks to the press since 1972?

That doesn't mean that now wouldn't be a propitious time for the news media to re-think the culture of anonymous sources and drastically alter its ethical philosophy on the subject. At the very least, every news organization should establish written rules delineating the circumstances under which an anonymous source can be used in a story. In the name of transparency, readers and viewers should be told what the rules are.

At least one editorial supervisor in addition to the reporter should know the identity of every protected source and have veto power over granting confidentiality. It goes without saying the policy should rule out protecting political cheap shots.

Reporters should refuse to grant anonymous status to anyone engaging in an egregious smear. The good ones already do this. Lehmann makes the valid point that only one journalist receiving the Plame leak, Robert Novak, actually ran a story; the others saw the leak as a smear against an Administration opponent and didn't run it. But where the news business falls short, and allows itself to be improperly used by politicians, is in not informing its own viewers and readers that an attempt has been made to hide behind anonymity while peddling a political line of some kind.

In the words of Karl Rove, smear artists and liars should be "fair game." When a "source" asks to speak in confidence, the only response from the reporter should be, "It depends on what you're going to tell me."

I realize I am suggesting a sea change in the way Washington journalists do business. I think the time has come.

I'm convinced that much of the gamesmanship over sourcing is rooted in the ever-expanding muck of secrecy oozing all over the government. As news organizations grapple with the evils of anonymous sourcing, why doesn't every paper in America run a front page box listing the number of days that have passed since the last presidential press conference -- or since Cheney answered a question?

Now that it's a Bush Administration biggie that's in the dock, many conservative voices argue the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which underlies Fitz's investigation, is incomprehensible and useless. Even the hardboiled Fitz didn't want to pursue prosecutions under a different statute, the Espionage Act, because it's supposedly too draconian. But I haven't heard anyone ask why such laws remain on the books, or demand that they be re-written.

It looks to me, as an old scandal connoisseur, like Fitz is following a strategy that might lead to the Veep being accused of breaking espionage laws. Maybe now would be a good time to try to recruit Cheney to lead a legislative drive to "modernize" that law and others that have created a bloated, anti-democratic secrecy apparatus.

-- Eric Engberg
  • Vaughn Ververs

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.