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.
SCOTT PELLEY, CBS News: Sources familiar with the president's testimony yesterday -
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
September 30 , 1998:
A discussion of anonymous sources.
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.
SAM DONALDSON, ABC News: ABC News has been told --
TERENCE SMITH: According to sources -- sources say - it's become the mantra of the Monica Lewinsky saga. More than most mega stories before it, the coverage of this seemingly endless scandal has been driven by stories attributed to anonymous, unidentified sources.
CORRESPONDENT: A source close to the investigation -
CORRESPONDENT: Sources tell CBS News --
TERENCE SMITH: Even the normally on-the-record Mike McCurry has played the game.
MICHAEL McCURRY, White House Spokesman: I'm briefing today as an anonymous source.
Why anonymous sources are used.
TERENCE SMITH: Anonymous sources serve a purpose, of course. Sometimes it is the only way news organizations can report what they have learned -- and theoretically confirmed -- from people who insist they not be identified. But attribution -- one of the basic tenets of Journalism 101-- frequently gets lost in the shuffle. Last week, for example, just before the president's videotaped testimony was to be released, there was a rash of anonymous reports about an angry president who allegedly stomped out of the room.
LISA MEYERS, NBC News: The William Jefferson Clinton who sat here in the Map Room of the White House last month and testified before the grand jury was not the smooth, polished performer we've come to expect. Congressional sources who've seen the four-hour tape describe this Clinton as often irritable, at times so angry he turns purple.
TERENCE SMITH: NBC's Lisa Myers was one among many who had quoted anonymous sources, but once the tape was broadcast, the media found themselves wondering where that angry president went.
BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS chief Washington correspondent: Well, the early reads we got on all, Dan, this was that we would see a president as we'd never seen him before; that we'd see a president who lost his temper. Clearly you're not seeing that.
TERENCE SMITH: Another example: On September 11, while the Starr Report to Congress was still under lock and key on Capitol Hill, both The New York Times and Washington Post led with stories that detailed its contents. The Times attributed its account to unnamed "lawyers familiar with the report," -- The Washington Post resorted to that old standby, "informed sources." These sources were anonymous, but not inaccurate. In fact, scores of "source" stories about the Lewinsky affair over the last several months have proved to be true. Early on, there was the semen-stained dress.
JACKIE JUDD, ABC News: According to the source, Lewinsky says she saved, apparently as kind of souvenir, a navy blue dress with the President's semen stain on it.
TERENCE SMITH: Which Jackie Judd of ABC News was reporting on January 23rd. And Newsweek as far back as the February 23rd issue was reporting "sources with access to Lewinsky's computer messages" -- indicated that Lewinsky had placed a valentine note to the president in The Washington Post. But those anonymous sources can sometimes get journalists in trouble. In January, the Dallas Morning News put what looked like an important story on its Web page. A few hours later, Nightline's Ted Koppel was on the air repeating the report.
TED KOPPEL, Nightline: The Dallas paper cites its own sources as stating that a Secret Service agent witnessed the president and Ms. Lewinsky in a compromising situation and that the agent has already been in communication with the office of the independent counsel, Ken Starr.
TERENCE SMITH: Even before the broadcast was over, the White House had issued a denial.
TED KOPPEL, Nightline: President Clinton's attorney, David Kendall, denounced the story as "false and malicious." His statement goes on to say, "This is another false political leak for obvious and political reasons on the eve of the State of the Union."
When anonymous sources backfire.
TERENCE SMITH: That same night, Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau Chief, Carl Leubsdorf, says the source for the story suffered what he calls "source remorse."
CARL LEUBSDORF, Dallas Morning News: Right on deadline between editions our source called us and said that he had been mistaken and we realized that while we had more than one source we were so dependent on this one source -- all the quotes were from him, and the basic information was really him -- that without him the story couldn't stand and we felt we had to retract the story.
TERENCE SMITH: Leubsdorf admitted that the paper had broken it's golden rule, which requires reporters to have a minimum of two sources for any story. In this case, he says, they relied too heavily on one anonymous source and were forced into an embarrassing retraction.
CARL LEUBSDORF: Anonymous sources are a problem, can be a problem, because when you get in a situation like this, you're stuck.
TERENCE SMITH: Of course, anonymous sources did not originate with the Lewinsky scandal.
(Scene from the movie "All the President's Men".)
DEEP THROAT: Where are you?
WOODWARD: Stuck. Story's stuck stalled on us.
DEEP THROAT: And you thought I'd help?
WOODWARD: I'll never quote you. I wouldn't quote you even as an anonymous source.
TERENCE SMITH: The infamous "Deep Throat" was immortalized in the Watergate film, "All the President's Men." But bureau chief Carl Leubsdorf says that since the days of Watergate, the media landscape has changed dramatically.
CARL LEUBSDORF: We have this speeded up news cycle being driven, in this case, by the 24-hour, all-news cable channels, three of them. And I think we've seen a number of instances where things have been put on under competitive pressure and one has a story and the other feels compelled to match it, whether it can do it by independent reporting or not.