The late Mark Felt should feel trivialized. The Deep Throat of Watergate had good reason for anonymity. His flow of information to reporters would have halted midstream had his identity come to light. The cover-up of a break-in at the offices of President Richard Nixon’s political opposition might have succeeded.
But the journalistic privilege of not identifying sources has become an effective tool for pandering speculation, repeating idle gossip, and launching strategic political lies.
Autopsy of Media Malpractice
Consider this a teachable moment, equipping you to repel fake news.
Did Donald Trump as president refer to fallen heroes of WWI as “suckers and losers.”? And if he did, does it matter?
Who Said He Said?
Now nine months later and with a team in charge of Washington employment that reveled in the accusation, claims about an alleged remark of almost three years ago still lacks anyone who’ll put his or her reputation on the line.
The story originated in The Atlantic, whose majority owner, Laurene Powell Jobs, contributed $600,000 to the Biden Victory Fund.
In the immediate aftermath of the “bombshell” breaking (see: 6 Questions for Detecting Propaganda Disguised as News) more than a dozen officials said they never heard Trump make such remarks. These on-the-record sources included the U.S. Ambassador to France and Trump’s disgruntled former National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Also almost instantly, the Biden campaign team had a TV advertisement flooding the airwaves. Biden referred to the alleged remark in campaign speeches, prefaced conveniently with the barely noticeable disclaimer: “if it’s true.”
I never saw a reporter ask Biden: And if it’s NOT true? But one did attempt to help him spring a powerful soundbite with some psycho-babble nonsensical query: “What does it say about a man’s soul?” Now there’s some hard-hitting journalism!
Maybe the media isn’t concocting stories with fictional characters portrayed as sources. But if that’s not the case, allowing sources to remain anonymous makes it consequence-free for the source to pander a lie. Heck, that’s even true when the source is making his statement right on the floor of the United States Senate.
In 2012, Harry Reid claimed that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, hadn’t paid income taxes in more than a decade. Reid was then the Senate majority leader.
Reid’s claim was an outright lie, acknowledge by even the Washington Post. But if love is never having to say you’re sorry, “Romney didn’t win” was the only justification that concerned Reid.
Seizing Upon Trump Vulnerability
A nasty and tacky feud with Senator John McCain before his death, brings plausibility to the allegation. However, Trump’s three-year record as president was marked by:
- an increase in defense spending,
- the use of tariffs, sanctions, and diplomacy where other presidents would likely have risked the lives of our military,
- providing vouchers for veterans to receive medical attention,
- establishing the United States Space Force.
So, even if Trump made the alleged remark, in light of his record what does it matter?
Cue The Echo Chamber
Usually, it’s the New York Times or Washington Post that fires the initial missile into the echo chamber. Then other media will report that the Times or the Post reports, with claims that — usually but not always — they’ve verified or confirmed the report.
Glenn Greenwald points out an example of a totally false report attaining confirmation from multiple media outlets. Not so ironically, the story surface about the same time President Trump was accused of calling fallen heroes of WWI “suckers and losers.”
CNN thought they had a post-Mueller-investigation rebirth of Russian collusion in the 2016 election, claiming to have obtained an email linking Donald Trump Jr. to WikiLeaks’ trove of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails. Supposedly, Don jr. received the email 12 days prior to the Wikileaks releasing all to the public.
Since U.S. intelligence agencies opined that WikiLeaks obtained it contraband through Russian resources, divulging DNC material to the Trump campaign equated to fanciful delusion of Russian collusion.
The misfire was that the Don Jr. email arrived after WikiLeaks public release and it was from someone just suggesting that the Trump campaign look at the material. But before truth prevailed, both MSNBC and CBS claimed to have confirmed the initial report.
“It’s one thing for a news outlet to make a mistake … but how is it possible that multiple other outlets could ‘confirm’ the same false report?” Greenwald wrote.
Greenwald’s post appeared in The Intercept shortly before his resignation, and went on to state.
“But what is clear is that the ‘confirmation’ which both MSNBC and CBS claimed it had obtained for the story was anything but: All that happened was that the same sources which anonymously whispered these unverified, false claims to CNN then went and repeated the same unverified, false claims to other outlets, which then claimed that they ‘independently confirmed’ the story even though they had done nothing of the sort.”
Demand a Standard for Anonymity
If you do a web search of “standard for anonymous source,” you’ll find a lot of media outlets talk a good game. But few deliver.
Contrasting Watergate’s Deep Throat to the foursome that claim Trump disparaged WWI vets demonstrates that the latter serves no vital purpose other than to smear President Trump. His record related to our military spoke louder than any words he may or may not have said, especially when no-one would take responsibility for the claim.
Information attributed to an unidentified person relies on trust in the reporting media agency. The mainstream media of the 21st century is worthy of no more than what President Ronald Reagan appropriated to the Soviet Union:
Trust but verify.
Actually, it’s probably necessary to be very skeptical and investigate.