A White House "source" a few days ago disclosed a few choice niblets of information about the President. Since that information came from an undisclosed source should it be published?
A new and very valuable Brookings Institution study of Washington journalism by former White House aide Stephen Hess makes the point that Washington reporters tend to get their news from unidentified political sources who leak material for their own benefit.
Further, Ben H. Bagdikian, considered by many in the news business to be the outstanding critic of the news media, recalls in a review of Hess's book an observation that John Kenneth Galbraith once made about Washington journalism:
"Nearly all of our political comment," said Galbraith, "originates in Washington. Washington politicians, after talking things over with each other, relay misinformation to Washington journalists who, after further intramural discussion, print it where it is thoughtfully read by the same politicians. It is the only completely successful closed system for the recycling of garbage that has yet been devised."
There is doubtless much truth in the Galbraith observation. Bagdikian underscores this. So does Hess's book.
Many Washington reporters acknowledge this problem of the self-serving, leaked story put out on a not-for-attribution basis. For example, one group of reporters regularly has taken the position that the informant be "on the record" -that a public figure when speaking to a number of reporters should be willing to stand behind his words.
Yet much valuable information would be closed to the public if officials could't work on a "source" background basis in some instances. For example, the White house source cited above would not have been willing to talk about the President and his plans if he had been " on the record. He was well positioned to know what was going on; thus he was an excellent source. But in his effort to keep a low profile and not upstage the President he simply wasn't going to be quoted.
Often, too, sources insist on remaining "sources" because what they are disclosing might cost them their jobs. Here a reported must carefully weight the worth of the information. Is this simply "spite stuff" or is there a special validity in the information provided because the informant is taking a big personal risk in disclosing it?
During the Watergate period on of the major bread-throughs leading to the downfall of Richard Nixon came when "Mr. Republican" himself, Sen. Barry Goldwater, called on Nixon to speak out and clear the air -- asserting that there was a "smell of Teapot dome" in what was taking place.
Senator Goldwater was prodded, at least in part, into providing this publicly aired criticism of Nixon after seeing a newspaper survey of Republican state chairmen and national committeemen which indicated that these leaders had finally become fed up with Nixon's unwillingness to clarify what was going on in Watergate.
What is important to be noted here, however, in the context of assessing "source" stories, is that these Repupblican leaders would only disclose this unhappiness with Mr. Nixon under nonattribution ground rules. After all, the President was their boss, and he could well get them ousted -- or, at least, make them quite uncomfortable. They also knew that Republicans in their states who supported Mr.Nixon might never forgive them.
So it can well be argued that interviews of public figures on a nonattribution basis would be allowed under some circumstances.
What is needed is good judgment -- by the reporter and the edit is involved -- about whether to grant anonymity to story sourcses. Clearly this is a heavy responsibility for the interviewer and his bosses.