March 17, 2005

Confronting the Seduction of Secrecy

I’m sure you all remember from your history readings that anonymous source reporting and our national government were born together; that in George Washington’s first administration Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were financing newspapers so they’d have someone to leak to.

The practice took root and thrived as the first three presidents found it necessary in their maneuvering to shape and establish the new government. Since then every president, especially the most powerful, extended and perfected the art of leaking information to favored outlets. Some might even suggest the current president has found it useful to control the flow of information to the public from time to time.

They have done so, as Lincoln pointed out, because they need public sentiment to succeed. A true fact that president Kennedy re-confirmed in his own words 100 years later when he described the “ship of state” as the only ship he knew that leaked from the top.

The advantage to the government of reaching the public mind behind a cloak of anonymity seems pretty obvious. But what’s the advantage to the press? I’m sure your own reading of history-maybe even your own experience-has answered this too. Leaked information has provided the press a rich stream of exclusive information for competitive advantage and has proven a sure road to personal career advancement.

But in fact the mutual interest nature of the relationship-the kind of relationship in which Franklin Roosevelt called the White House press into the oval office for a not for attribution seminar on what economic change was good for America; or Eisenhower provided a detailed policy briefing to a national columnist-was breaking down even as Kennedy spoke.

It was breaking down because after World War II Washington had become the most important source of daily news in the country if not the world. The size of the Washington press corps had exploded as the government provided the new medium of television a convenient center around which to attract its national audience. And a new wave of Cold War secrecy shut down access to whole agencies of government.

In this new atmosphere, officials at all levels in all departments-some of whom had never seen a reporter before-were regularly visited by several reporters as government news became a cauldron of competition for career-making stories. American journalists eagerly accepted British press baron Lord Northcliff’s dictum that read, “news is something that someone, somewhere wants to keep secret, everything else is advertising.” Inside information was no longer limited to the head of state and trusted columnists but available to diligent reporters who worked the lesser corridors of power to break important news.

The best of whom, like Murrey Marder, were developing techniques to tease out a bit of inside information here and bit there to create a rough mosaic of previously secret policy initiatives. Others like Izzy Stone were meticulously reading obscure official documents to refute government claims and assertions with its own words.

Government response was to create more categories of classified information. And institute group “backgrounders”-a practice that appealed to print reporters because “no camera” rules stripped the upstart television reporters of their biggest competitive advantage.

The power and the public service impact of the anonymous source Watergate reporting shaped the next generation of journalists and anonymous source reporting followed by expanded secrecy became the conditioned reflex that has defined life in Washington.

How the two are related; whether one results from the other are questions on the table here today. And in that connection my experience when I came to Washington after the 1972 election may be instructive. News reports then were liberally sprinkled with reports provided by an unidentified briefer at a “backgrounder” or stories with anonymous pejorative quotes, even ridiculous unidentified self-promoting quotes of the: don’t-use-my-name-on-this-but-I-think- the-President-is-doing-a-great-job variety.

Much of the work of the Washington bureau of The Times then was governed by a need to recover from our embarrassing competitive weakness the Post’s Watergate work had exposed. Investigative reporting was our new watchword and we were digging deeper and deeper for anonymous sources.

But this reporting came in conflict with another of our goals to help readers learn more about how Washington worked. We did this on a new “Washington Talk” page and came face to face with this problem: to explain how Washington worked we would have to explain how the press worked in Washington. The more we looked at that the more we realized that anonymous source reporting put us in the position not just of withholding information from our readers, in the sense of withholding the source, the source’s access and possible bias in some stories, and sometimes giving them misinformation from these sources. As we tried to correct this problem we learned the hard lesson that I suspect the Washington press corps still confronts today.

One example: we found an anonymous source had given us misleading information that we published and decided it provided a good look at how the Washington press worked. So we wrote about the leak and named the leaker. As a courtesy we called three other reporters who had written a similar story to ours from the same source. They all agreed the leaker should be exposed but they were not going to do it.

Administration officials up to the vice president and the counsel to the president tried to stop the outing. One of the arguments they used was that the other three reporters had called them and assured them they would protect the leaker’s identity. We ran the story and, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the word was put out among White House staff not to talk to the Times.

Another example: shortly after we learned that some industrious foreign reporters, including reporters for the Tass news agency were reporting the names of government officials doing briefings that we published on a background basis. This posed the obvious problem: if foreign leaders and foreign audiences knew the names, how could we justify keeping our readers in the dark? A few other reporters joined us at first when we asked briefings be kept open and left the room if they were not. But the support didn’t last long. The main argument from other journalists was that they would surrender their independence if they took part in such group actions.

Instead we were ridiculed for “showboating.” Support that beat reporters in the bureau had given the idea began to erode. Our competitive disadvantage began to have an effect. in the end, concern over a loss of independence made coalition building to keep briefing rooms open too tough a nut to crack and I was brought into line.

But that was then and this is now and we are deep into another turn of the competitive wheel. The situation you face today has been made even more acute by the greatly expanded outlets for information the accelerated competition and the post 9-11 national security atmosphere.

As for the secrecy aspects of this discussion we’re fortunate to have on the panel experts who can speak to that issue from deep knowledge and experience. But on the issue of journalistic independence that has served to limit previous efforts to discuss our contribution to the culture of secrecy I’d like just take a minute to remind everyone how radically the world in which we operate has changed.

For openers we have now helped create a world in which Lord Northcliff’s dictum is standing on its head. No longer can we feel so sure that what we expose is truly news. As we’ve all seen to our regret, much of what has been reported from anonymous sources as news was, at best, nothing more than advertisement and at worse, designed to mislead public opinion with deceptive and even false information.

Tom Rosenstiel and I reported on the growth of this problem in some detail in our book, Warp Speed .

In the new world of competition in a never-ending news cycle, we wrote, we are turning over our most trusted value-our independence-to anonymous sources who are gaining power over journalists to assume the role of editors in deciding when and often in what form information will be published.

That reporting described Washington press coverage during the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. The record since then suggests that we have failed, both as individual journalists and as an industry, to recognize the degree to which we have allowed ourselves to be controlled by the people we report on. And we have failed to accept the fact that the independence we fear to “lose” is not really ours to lose in the first place. It is given to us by the people. Time after time the courts have told us that while we have the constitutional right to publish freely we do not have any constitutional right to access to the news. That right of access flows from the people.

It’s time we asked ourselves whether each time we publish an anonymous source story that maybe we are forcing our public to read a code when they don’t know what the code is. Worse still as anonymous source stories become more routine do we routinize and even de-legitimize the source stories that will truly be vital to the public?

I think any fair assessment of press behavior would conclude that some elements of the culture of secrecy is in part a thing of our own making. How much anonymous source reporting has worked to the benefit or the detriment of our journalism and of the American people? We may rightly argue that some of the very best anonymous source reporting is of the highest public service value but how do we explain that a public that can at any time withhold its support of our access to the seats of power because they no longer trust or value what we do?

Given the depth of knowledge and experience in the room here today we have an opportunity to seriously address these questions and others they may suggest. and perhaps we can come out of this with some new ideas that can re-open closed doors in Washington; some new ideas that will allow us to show and not just tell the public how the government is working. And maybe if we’re lucky we can find that cooperation and collaboration are not threats to our independence but are the key to strengthen the value and the appeal of a journalism of verification to the American people.

For more information on the “Seduction of Secrecy” symposium, please click here.

Originally delivered on March 17, 2005.