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Sore Throat

What a tangled web we weave when upon anonymous sources we lean. Okay, so I'm not Sir Walter Scott (or Shakespeare as originally written) but that line about deception does seem to fit the continuing soap opera that is the Plame leak investigation. We thought Judith Miller's exit from The New York Times signaled the end of the media's part in the play. Turns out we've only reached intermission.

Today Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, bravely took to the paper's Web site to take questions from the public about this week's revelation that Bob Woodward had been told about Valerie Plame by an unnamed source and had remained silent (even to Downie) about it until that source informed the prosecutor of it. The jolt kicked off this act with a bang. Woodward apologized to Downie and the paper, Post employees vented about it in internal conversations and plenty of questions were raised by media watchers.

PE applauds Downie for doing a Post chat and engaging in a dialogue with readers (how could we not?) but what was instructive about it was not what Downie had to say but rather the questions asked. One reader from France asked:

"One cannot help but think that Bob Woodward in this instance either deliberately held back this information for his own purpose -- he does after all need to have access to the president and his cabinet to complete research on his new book."
Another from Chicago wondered in part:
"Do you think Woodward was covering up for the vice president?"
Still another from Maryland asked:
"My impression is that reporters are becoming increasingly 'players' rather than observers. Reporters identify more with the elites they follow around and go to dinner with, than the rabble they write for. Woodward's reporting, for example, looks more and more like insiders' stories. Where can we outsiders turn for real investigative reporting?"
There were many more questions, some more positive in tone toward Woodward than others, but everyone in the media ought to be concerned with how they are being perceived. Woodward's "Deep Throat" remains the shining example of how investigative reporting should be done and how important anonymous sources can be. But the increasing reliance on them in reports on everything from the most important to the most mundane diminishes the practice.

The result is suspicion among readers, not to mention an open invitation to question reporters' motives. Lots of news organizations have paid at least lip service to the problems of anonymous sources and have introduced complex explanations that purport to give consumers more of an idea where blind quotes are coming from. But it's pretty clear that approach isn't working.

This morning on Don Imus' show, Post media writer Howard Kurtz described the controversy being inflicted on news organizations from Time magazine to The New York Times, and now the Post as a "virus" spreading from one to the next. He also said he's taken to calling Woodward's latest secret source as "Shallow Throat." I'd take it a step further and say it's the media's addiction to unnamed sources that is the virus and it's giving the entire profession a "Sore Throat." And if it goes untreated, it could turn into something much more serious to our health.