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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

New Policy Re Anonymous Sources Can Help Spur Less Biased Media Coverage

A few months ago James Vega posted a strategy memo at TDS addressing the GOP’s “standarized strategy for manufacturing bogus Democratic ‘scandals'” most recently used to gin up outrage about former Secretary of State Clinton’s alleged email improprieties. The memo held the New York Times and other MSM outlets to account for allowing themselves to be manipulated by a “profound fear of reporting anything that contradicts the notion that both political parties are basically equivalent” and suggested strategies for Democrats to respond effectively. As Vega put it,

…Once the GOP grasped the fact that the mainstream media would not honestly report the fact that they were engaging in an asymmetric extremist warfare against the Democrats, Republicans realized that they could use the traditional journalistic standards for reporting information given “off the record” or “on deep background” to easily manipulate the press without fear of exposure or censure.

Vega cites proposals by Norm Ornstein, which gems can use to help prevent media from being so easily-manipulated in the future, including:

• Sources that provide information that turns out to be false and defamatory should lose any “off the record” protection whatsoever and have their identities exposed.
• Reporters should not be allowed to publish information provided by a source that refuses to allow the writer to honestly describe relevant information about the sources’ partisan ties and affiliations.
• Reporters or editors who fail at this fundamental public responsibility should face dismissal, suspension or other consequences from their publishers severe enough to dissuade them from continuing to abuse the public trust.

Vega concludes that “If editors and reporters in the mainstream media aspire to be objective, they can start by refusing to allow themselves to be manipulated by the GOP.” In effect argues Vega, “Failing to do this is represents the endorsement and support of pro-Republican partisan dishonesty in their reporting that is different from the partisan propaganda of Fox News and talk radio commentators only in degree and not essential character.”
Since Vega’s memo and mounting criticism against biased reporting that elevates bogus “scandals,” it appears that some major media outlets are doing some constructive soul-searching. In her Public Editor’s Journal article, “Tightening the Screws on Anonymous Sources” in The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan explains that “Times editors are cracking down on the use of anonymous sources…Although the policy does not ban anonymity, it is intended to significantly reduce…an overreliance on unnamed sources.” Further, adds Sullivan,

It requires one of three top editors to review and sign off on articles that depend primarily on information from unnamed sources – particularly those that “hinge on a central fact” from such a source…
The policy also requires any other use of anonymous sources to be approved by a desk head – for example, the ranking culture, metro or international editor – or that person’s immediate deputy. It also “underscores what has been our policy”: that an editor must know the identity of an unnamed source.
The new policy also aims to significantly “ratchet down the use of anonymous quotation,” Mr. Purdy said. It would make such quotation relatively rare. Too often, he said, such direct quotations allow sources to express “their impression, their spin, their agenda” without accountability. And, he said, they don’t allow readers to evaluate motive because they don’t know where the information is coming from.

Sullivan warns that “the devil, of course, is in the enforcement.” She notes that recent experiments using the new policies have been encouraging. More rigorous standards for using anonymous sources is a welcome change in America’s most prominent newspaper, and it’s likely that the better newspapers, and perhaps some electronic media outlets, will follow suit.
But no one should be deluded that such well-intentioned policy changes will automatically prove to be permanent. It will require constant vigilance and monitoring both inside — and outside — major media outlets against equal constant pressure from partisan scandal-mongers.
For now, however, give the Times credit for addressing the issue in a credible way. May their example be contagious.

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