LURKING IN THE SHADOWS
September 30, 1998
The use of anonymous sources is a long-standing practice in journalism, but critics say unnamed sources undermine reporters' credibility and have become too widespread. Following a background report, media correspondent Terence Smith leads a discussion with two journalists and a former White House official who has acted as an anonymous source.
TERENCE SMITH: Now to discuss the use and the abuse of anonymous sources we're joined by Bob Woodward, author, journalist, and assistant managing editor of The Washington Post; Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton, who was frequently an anonymous source during his 13 months in the White House; Jack Nelson, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who is now chief Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Gentlemen, welcome. Jack, Let me ask you first - from your perspective, has the use of anonymous sources gotten out of hand in the Lewinsky story?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
September 30, 1998:
A background report on the use and abuse of anonymous sources in journalism.
September 22, 1998:
A discussion on how well the media handled the president's grand jury appearance.
September 17, 1998:
Four foreign journalists discuss how the Lewinsky scandal is playing around the globe.
September 14, 1998:
A discussion on the media's coverage of the Starr report.
September 8, 1998:
Is Dan Burton's private life fair game?
September 3, 1998:
The Monica Lewinsky story follows the president to Russia.
September 1, 1998:
Financial news gains more and more coverage.
August 28, 1998:
A look at media coverage of Princess Diana, a year after her death.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of media issues.
JACK NELSON, Los Angeles Times: Well, I think it has, and I'm not opposed to anonymous sources. I've been using them all my career. So - the fact is I'm writing a story right now depending upon anonymous sources. But I think that you can actually go back to Watergate and after Watergate, which depended a lot on anonymous sources to break the story; you couldn't have broken it without it. But I think that reporters have gotten to where they depend upon anonymous sources much too much and particularly in the Monica Lewinsky investigation. And you have seen results, I think, as we just saw in the program here.
TERENCE SMITH: What's the harm of it?
JACK NELSON: Well, the harm of it is that frequently the reader, of course, has no idea who some of the anonymous sources are. People use anonymous sources that are not really credible. Reporters, I think, sometimes use anonymous sources when they don't have to, because they think it strengthens the story, if they say that this is according to an anonymous source, and as a result, you wind up with stories that really sometimes are just not adequately documented.
Do anonymous sources represent a "conspiracy on the part of the press and source in restraint of public truth"?
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Woodward, to paraphrase your old boss, Ben Bradlee, who said this about background briefings, but you could say anonymous sources are, in his words, a conspiracy on the part of the press and source in restraint of public truth.
BOB WOODWARD, The Washington Post: Well, obviously you're in many situations where there's a very important and you can double-check it, use not just one unnamed source. I mean, we use this term "anonymous sources" that are not anonymous to all of us. And I would argue often using unnamed sources, it puts the reporter on the spot. They need to get second and third sources. If the story is untrue, they're the ones who are going to be hanging out there. We now have the - read the memorable situation where an on-the-record source, President Clinton, in his famous, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, that was on the record, turns out it was not true. So often if reporters assume the role of stenographers or camera men and go around and say, well, I got it on the record, it's okay, it's not true, we're clogging up the information system.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. But is it not true that the phrase, the "anonymous source," the unnamed, unidentified source has been used again and again in this story, the Lewinsky story, I will say particularly on television, to a point where it's become just part of the language?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, it has, and I mean, as you pointed out, a lot of the stories have turned out to be true. And so that's -that's very, very significant. Good information was put out. But I agree with Jack on one thing, the issue is really press credibility. And if you take the example which you cited earlier of these reports from supposedly informed sources that Clinton was going to blow his stack in his grand jury testimony and he did nothing of the kind - now people hearing those reports and then looking at his testimony are going to say to themselves, how did that happen, can we believe the press, can we trust the press, and the answer is, we all get cast with a big net of suspicion when that happens.
Why sources make themselves anonymous.
TERENCE SMITH: Lanny Davis, you're here tonight out from under your cloak of anonymity as a source in those 13 months in the White House. Didn't you always have an agenda when you made yourself anonymous?
LANNY DAVIS, Former Clinton White House Counsel: Well, first let me say anonymous sources are terrible unless I'm the anonymous source. Yes, there's always a reason to talk on background, which would be to identify somebody as a White House official but without a name behind it, or to talk on deep background without any attribution whatsoever. Usually the agenda was that there might be an institutional reason why the White House doesn't want to officially release information, just as foreign policy officials often talk on background because they don't want an official statement from the United States Government, but they want to float an idea to see how it resounds. And in my case we frequently wanted to get stories out but we didn't want to do it officially. So I was then given authority by somebody in the White House to do it on background or on deep background.
TERENCE SMITH: But isn't that partly spin, as well, by putting it out without a name on it, without a specific identification, it can sometimes serve in your case the president's purpose?
LANNY DAVIS: Well, if spin has the word agenda behind it, then yes, there was an agenda and a reason for doing it on background, or anonymously. But we - Bob Woodward and I were talking beforehand as far as I was concerned, I never said anything to a reporter anonymously or on background that I wasn't 100 percent certain of, as best as I could be, that were factual and accurate and I would stand behind no matter what. And that, to me, is good spinning, as opposed to manipulation and deception, which I would define as bad spinning.
JACK NELSON: Also, if you were identified as a White House official or White House source, at least we know something about where it's coming from. But, unfortunately, in many of these cases that you've just cited, they say sources, they never say whether it's the White House, they don't say whether it's somebody from the prosecution team, and as a matter of fact, in the Lewinsky thing, if you ask me, in many cases the press has become almost like an arm of the prosecution, they have frequently used things that are from the prosecution side, where they never say that it comes from there, and almost invariably if it comes from the White House, they refer to the White House spin.
TERENCE SMITH: And, Bob, is that wrong - to do that?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, obviously, you want to give as much information as you can, but when you're talking about a very serious investigation, often the phrase that is commonly used now is lawyers close to the case or familiar with the information. Now that could mean defense lawyers; lawyers in the White House for President Clinton, or it could mean prosecution sources. I think the agreement of all parties involved, they don't want to be identified which side they're on, because they're going to get fingered, and there have been investigations of leaks and so forth, and the chief judge in the case is very exercised about it, so people are receding further into the underbrush. Now that puts an added responsibility in my view on the reporter to double-check and triple-check and make sure there are sources on the other side reflecting what's going on.
Do anonymous sources deprive readers of needed information?
TERENCE SMITH: Doesn't that deprive-I would ask any of you this - doesn't that deprive the reader of knowledge that you have - not only the specific identity of the individual but where he or she is coming from?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, sure it does, but the question is, is the information more important than where it came from? And I would - I would submit in the Lewinsky story it's a very important story, very serious story, by and large the press has done pretty well on it.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, who's telling you, the anonymous, who will - shall I say guiding you to do that?
LANNY DAVIS: I frequently guided myself. I sought authority and consultation with people within the White House but I often made a judgment, particularly in the early stages of the campaign, finance story, the Roger Tamaraz story was a good example - I knew that there were a lot of explosive elements to that story involving the Central Intelligence Agency, involving buying, access and all those volatile issues, but at the end of the day, I knew that Roger Tamaraz had struck out, hadn't gotten anything for his money, so I tried to proactively put that story out. We called it a deep background private placement.
TERENCE SMITH: Now there's a new phrase in the lexicon.
LANNY DAVIS: In order to get that story written completely and accurately, so that Fred Thompson, when he had his first day of hearings, wouldn't be able to frame it in a way that was inaccurate or incomplete or biased, so we framed that story, we put it all out, good and bad, and it was written accurately, and I think to our benefit.
TERENCE SMITH: Private placement meant you picked the reporter.
LANNY DAVIS: We picked several news organizations that were working on the story that had invested in the story, that we felt it was equitable to give them the story and not anybody else.
JACK NELSON: But you'd been on anonymous source for many reporters over a long period of time. Have you found instances where the reporters have called you, where they would just as soon you be anonymous, rather than put your name to it, because this is going to make their story a little bit stronger?
LANNY DAVIS: Actually no, Jack. I heard you say that and I'm interested - that your experience has been that. My experience has been I want to be on the record, my presumption is I should be on the record, there has to be a compelling, even an overwhelming reason for me to be on background.
TERENCE SMITH: How often were you on the record?
LANNY DAVIS: About 50 percent of the time.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Well, that's half and half. I'm not sure that's getting to where you wanted to be. But Bob, does this strike you as - and particularly in this story, when you look at it over these last eight or nine months - has it lowered the bar?
BOB WOODWARD: No. It probably hasn't, but I think there are a couple of dangers here. The press is kind of feeling good about itself. There have been the mistakes - you pointed out some - that have really been unfair, and there have been lots of stories written about President Clinton when he is riding high, he makes mistakes. I think we ought to turn that analysis on ourselves and say this is a time when people make mistakes and they often come from anonymous sources, and so the remedy is not using them; the remedy is checking and double-checking and being very specific.
Do anonymous sources manipulate the press?
TERENCE SMITH: Don't you feel particularly manipulated if Lanny Davis calls you up in a deep background personal placement, because he's picked you for that story, for his reasons, and I'm not saying those reasons are necessarily good or bad, I'm just saying there's an agenda there, and you know it when the phone rings?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, of course. Any time you talk to anyone there's an agenda. That's not new. That's a starting point. Lanny would know that a good reporter is going to check everything he says and going to check it six ways to Sunday, and if there's some inconsistency or some lie in it, they're going to get back to him and say, hey, what's up? That, in a sense, increases his burden to make sure he's right.
LANNY DAVIS: On both sides of this equation, including the people who are reading the newspapers every day, the reporter's got integrity and credibility to protect - can't be half pregnant. Once they lose it, it's very hard to recover it. The leaker has to maintain that as well, and the minute I said to myself I ever lied, deceived or tried to hold back from a reporter, that will be my last time, and both sides of that equation have to be very protective of not violating that rule.
TERENCE SMITH: Jack Nelson, how about a little viewer's guide here, how should the viewer or reader decipher a source story?
JACK NELSON: Well, I think number one they ought to look to see if they do tell you whether it is somebody from the White House, whether it's a prosecution source, or whether it's just sources, and if it's just sources, I think that it raises the question of credibility in a lot of people's mind and probably ought to, although I agree with Bob that many times you have to be a little bit murky on it. I remember, for example, during the impeachment inquiry of Richard Nixon, we had information that the March 23rd tape that was a smoking gun, that it was exploded and unambiguous, and Nixon had said that it was unexploded and ambiguous. So we had two good sources and one of them I can say now because he's no longer living and I'm sure he wouldn't mind - you can say this about Deep Throat - Albert Genera was one of the sources who was the Republican counsel in the impeachment inquiry saying that it was explosive and it was unambiguous, and then we had another one who was actually at the White House. And we just used it very murkily. We said it was a congressional source and it was the executive department.
BOB WOODWARD: And I think you got some quotes from the transcript at some point, because I remember the anguish at The Washington Post that the LA Times had this very good and significant story.
JACK NELSON: That's right.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, it just raises the question of whether Matt Drudge has set the standard here. I mean, you were talking about that before.
JACK NELSON: Heavens no.
LANNY DAVIS: But that's the integrity issue. Matt Drudge is unapologetic about passing along unsubstantiated rumors. And one side of the equation doesn't care about integrity, the whole process is spoiled.
BOB WOODWARD: And he got lucky. Drudge got lucky and something in the Lewinsky story turned out to be true.
TERENCE SMITH: Thank you all very much.