September 9, 2020

THE ANONYMOUS SOURCES ARE OFTEN THE ONLY ONES BEING TRUTHFUL (profanity alert):

'I'll have to say it's total bull***t': How political sources play the anonymity game (Tom DeFrank, 9/09/20, NATIONALJOURNAL)

Being hammered for relying on anonymous sources is the price that reporters are often willing to pay to obtain vital information that otherwise would never be printed.

As Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, the author of the piece, has noted, "these are people who are not anonymous to me." On the other side of the ledger, even some of the most ardent Trump defenders furiously insisting that Goldberg's anecdotes "never happened" frequently play the very same game when it suits their interests.

A personal example: In the spring of 1987, I interviewed Texas businessman George W. Bush in Dallas for Newsweek's 1988 special election project, to be published only 36 hours after the presidential victor had been determined.

Our ground rules for the interview--the first of many over the next 18 months, and again in 1992--were that I could use everything he told me but couldn't identify him as the source. In other words, we were on background, a staple of the journalistic trade.

The man formerly known as "Junior," who later became "Bush 43," was amazingly helpful, dishing the sort of inside-baseball detail and real-time dialogue that reporters dream about. He was totally fearless in analyzing the campaign; after all, he answered to only one official, his father, who'd recently introduced us at a White House reception and encouraged him to cooperate. And none of the anonymous reporting would be public until after the polls had closed.

After an unusually productive interview, I gratefully thanked him for his candor. "Now, let me ask YOU a question," he said with a smirk. "When this thing comes out I'll probably be asked about some of this stuff. I'll have to say it's total [*****]. Are you gonna have a problem with that?"

I assured him that wouldn't be bothersome. Sources often deny inconvenient truths on the record that they've leaked on background.

In more than a half-century as a Washington correspondent, in fact, the very people who gave me my information often later tried to debunk my reporting publicly. Among them were presidents, vice presidents, Cabinet officers, high-ranking government officials, and four-star generals. I've sat in briefings, trying to suppress a smile, as my very source denounced my story.

That's the way it works. As a White House chief of staff once told me, "I'm not talking about this story, but if you run it on Monday you won't look stupid." But when asked about the article, he was able to tell associates he hadn't commented.

Posted by at September 9, 2020 5:41 AM

  

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