In my journalism class last week, we discussed the Washington Post story that identified hundreds of media outlets as “fake news” sites. We concluded that fake news is hard to define, but that any news, whether “fake” or “real,” that relies on unnamed sources from government agencies without a single verifiable reference is always a red flag.
A few days later, the Post released its alarming story about a secret CIA assessment that concluded that Russia not only hacked the presidential campaign but did so to help Donald Trump win the election. This is no small claim and journalism institutions — especially one that has just trashed purveyors of “fake news” — should, I’d think, want to vet such information very carefully before presenting it to the public. In this case, supporters of Hillary Clinton have seized upon the Post story as hard evidence and used it to effectively call for a constitutional coup to block Trump from taking office.
However, I’m just a communications major. What do I know about journalism ethics and practices? So like any student who wants to learn about journalism, I went directly to the source by emailing Greg Miller, one of the three Post reporters who shared a byline on the story.
Here’s part of our exchange, which is lightly edited for clarity:
Me: In your article revealing that the CIA found evidence of Russian involvement, I can’t see where you guys reported anything that could be backed up by a report or attributed statement. It appears you just used unnamed sources about nameless assessments. That doesn’t seem right to me. I know it’s ok to use unnamed sources but usually that is to back up something substantiated in an article that can be linked to, sourced or named.
Miller: You expected the Post to link to a classified assessment delivered to congress in secret by the CIA?
Me: No, of course not. I guess when a journalist only has anonymous sources, the public has to rely on what the journalist can confirm. In essence, you are the source. I assume this means you and your colleagues did view or were privy to something tangible that gives you the ability to confirm?
Miller: I don’t know why you would assume that. Journalists rely on a wide range of sources. Sometimes they’re people sometimes they’re documents. Don’t always have both. Anonymous sources require additional scrutiny. But our objective is to get at the truth. Ever watched All the Presidents Men? It’s worked this way for a long time.
So it seems that reporters can publish information leaked by unnamed intelligence sources, regardless of the purpose of the leak and without being able to confirm whether the information is entirely accurate or not. We just need to trust them apparently.
Like I said, I’m just a journalism student but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that, especially given how the Post and other “real” news outlets were played by sources throughout the presidential campaign, and how important this story is and the curious post-election timing of the leaks. If this information is accurate, why wasn’t it released months ago? That might have been seen as meddling in an election, but right now it looks like trying to reverse an election outcome.
This is not to say that the story is bogus but “All The President’s Men” seems like a stretch here and Bob Woodward’s own reporting on Watergate (and use of unnamed and soon-to-die sources) has produced plenty of controversies in the past. However, if Miller wants to refer to the Post‘s past work, I’d hope he’ll also take a look at this recent article by Jeffrey St. Clair (adapted from his previous collaboration with Alexander Cockburn) about the Post and Operation Mockingbird.
Sometimes it’s hard to just trust reporters.