A SENIOR diplomat from a European country stopped by to meet with the Monitor's editorial board the other day. For an hour, he briefed editors on a particularly troubled part of the world. It was interesting and informative and ``on background,'' which means the diplomat's words and ideas may show up in print but he won't be directly quoted. Many readers (including a recent letter writer who blasted a Monitor story that had no named sources) are troubled with the number of anonymous voices scattered throughout the media these days. They suspect (a) that the cloaked source has an ax to grind; or (b) that anonymity allows for weak and unsupported assertions - by source or reporter; or (c) that the reporter is simply lazy and disguising the fact that his sources are fewer and less authoritative than implied. All of these suspicions are legitimate.
``Observers say'' is an easy way to stick an uninformed wet finger in the air or - worse yet - let reportial bias intrude in the guise of objectivity. And even the ``senior administration official'' can be just as manipulative as the lowliest leaker. (Remember the picture of Henry Kissinger with the caption ``senior administration official'' after His Excellency went background once too often?)
Still, there are good reasons for off-the-record interviews and background briefings. When Henry Catto was Defense Department spokesman several years ago, he had the Pentagon press corps regulars in every Thursday for chips and dip and an hour to bang away at the likes of Assistant Secretary Richard Perle (then one of the most powerful men in the Reagan administration).
The only ground rule was that Perle's comments could not be connected to him, so he'd show up next day as a ``senior defense official.'' Or if he was blasting the ``other Richard'' - Assistant Secretary of State Burt, with whom he wrestled over arms control - his remarks had to be totally disconnected from the Pentagon.
Other times, analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency (good, gray bureaucrats often at odds with the CIA) huddled to give the latest on the Soviet military. On more than one occasion, highly classified spy stuff was shared with trusted reporters. This included information (even photos taken by foreign nationals) that, if fully disclosed in the press, would have revealed intelligence ``sources and methods'' and no doubt endangered US agents abroad. Reporters agreed not to report everything they learned, but their readers were better informed as a result of the briefing.
And of course every self-respecting reporter is constantly building his stable of informed sources who will close the office door, put feet up on the desk, and cut through the party line. Or better yet, call when he's just got to get something off his chest. That's certainly a key lesson of Watergate, where shoe-leather reporting (including the use of sources that to this day remain anonymous) brought down a corrupt administration.
Anonymous sources have been around since the first royal courtier whispered to the first scribe. They always will be, especially in the information age, and especially in the area of diplomacy, where the setting and articulation of state policy has to be both subtle and highly structured.
This puts special demands on reporters and editors, whose reputation with readers is as tenuous as a politician's.
For reporters, it means pressing sources to talk openly. When some cover is needed, it means telling as much as possible about the source so readers can judge his reliability. It sounds simple, maybe even simplistic. But too often journalists encourage anonymity without negotiating for more public comments.
For editors, it means pushing reporters to reveal their sources in print, pushing some more, and then satisfying themselves that anonymity really is necessary. It's also the editor's responsibility to make sure that one or two sources are not artfully disguised to make them seem like a roomful.
For readers, it means trusting reporters and editors to hold up their end of the bargain. And hollering when they don't.