(Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the
author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the
Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." His next book is
"Hooper's War: A Novel of WWII Japan.")
By Peter Van Buren
Jan 4 President-elect Donald Trump is clearly
antagonistic toward the mainstream media. That attitude is
unlikely to change after Inauguration Day. His disdain for
journalists and reluctance to release details about his finances
and business ventures may force journalists to rely increasingly
on anonymous sources, a strategy that reputable news
organizations have long frowned upon.
So in the age of Trump, how should a reader approach
coverage that relies primarily on anonymous sources?
Read the news like a spy.
By not naming a source, a journalist asks you to trust them.
Did they talk to an intern or a policymaker? Every source has an
agenda; if we as readers don't know the source we have a hard
time parsing out and then evaluating that motivation. Remember
the way the press covered decisions that led to the 2003 Iraq
War via articles based on unnamed sources, all with tall tales
of Weapons of Mass Destruction?
Anonymous sources certainly have their place. During the
Watergate scandal, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and
Carl Bernstein used a contact named Deep Throat to verify
details about U.S. President Richard Nixon's involvement in the
break-in of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters,
theft of top-secret documents and bugging of phones. Legitimate
sources need to be protected from retaliation in return for
informing the public, especially where national security
whistle-blowing is concerned.
Many readers feel they have only two options: take the
reporter's word for it, or not. The result is a steady flow of
insider stories that get blasted through aggregated media, which
simply repeat others' work. They then abandon the story as
online roadkill for us to Tweet about. We tend to either label
what we read as bogus, or scream at people who label what we
believe as bogus.
The unique circumstances of Trump's business background mean
legitimate anonymous sources will likely have to play a
significant role in reporting over the next four years. At the
same time, the echo-like nature of the web, coupled with
partisan outlets and equally partisan readers, opens the door to
more unscrupulous or mistaken use of anonymous sources.
So how can readers exercise intelligent skepticism?
One way is to apply some of the same tests intelligence
officers use to help them evaluate their own sources. Since an
article's unnamed sources are fully unknown to you as the
reader, not every test applies, but thinking backwards from the
information in front of you to who could be the source is a good
start on forming a sense of how credible what you are being told
For example, is a source in a position to know what they say
they know, what intelligence officers call spotting? A story
claiming bureaucrats are unhappy with the new president might be
legitimately sourced from a contact in the human resources
office of a large cabinet agency. But how many people's opinions
would that source be in a position to know, beyond cafeteria
gossip? Tens out of a workforce of tens of thousands? So if the
finished story reads "State Department officials are unhappy
with the incoming administration," how credible is such a broad
statement? Is it news what a handful of people think?
The "position to know" idea scales up sharply when a source
says they are privy to important conversations: how would they
know the contents of a call the president-elect made to a
foreign leader? Only a very few people would be in the room for
something like that. Would any be likely leakers?
Any article that cites a source who claims to know the "why"
behind some action, what was in the head of a decision maker,
should be subject to special skepticism. Key officials are
generally not in the habit of explaining their true motivations
outside a tight inner circle. In your own life, do you?
Legitimate sources risk something by talking, such as loss
of a good job, maybe even jail. Is what they will get out of the
leak worth the risk they are assuming? On the other hand,
sources may push out fake leaks intended to influence public
opinion. Often times these take the form of excerpts from
classified documents. What would an anonymous source hope to
achieve by such a leak, at the risk of prison? If you the reader
can't suss out the mystery source's likely agenda - what they
want - then you're the guy at the poker table who can't tell who
the rube is, and needs a mirror to find out. Agenda-driven
information can still be true, but is always worth a good sniff
test by a discerning reader.
Another test you can apply is if the information being
handed over fits the "is the juice worth the squeeze" test of
credibility. For example, a source claims Candidate X had a
police officer beaten up after she ticketed his car. Would a
candidate really risk headline news that he ordered a beating of
a cop just to retaliate for a minor traffic ticket? Careful
readers also have to ask themselves whether they want to believe
such a thing badly enough to overlook its improbability.
Similarly, is what you are reading consistent with other
information on the subject? Does the new info track known facts,
what intelligence officers call expectability? Overall, the
further away from expectability a story stretches, the more
obligation to be skeptical. While anything can have a potential
explanation, falling back on "it might be true" or "you can't
prove it's not true" are typical enablers of bogus news, or
misleading and inaccurate reporting.
How might this all work in practice?
For example, a story published by ThinkProgress, a news site
affiliated with the Democratic-leaning think tank the Center for
American Progress, claimed the Trump Organization pressured the
Kuwaiti ambassador to move a reception from the Four Seasons to
the new Trump International Hotel in Washington as a way to
curry favor. (The Kuwaiti ambassador denied this claim in both
the ThinkProgress article and a subsequent article in Politico)
Who inside Trump's group (his daughter Ivanka?) and the
embassy (the ambassador's personal aide?) would be privy to such
a sensitive interaction, have the pull to speak one-on-one with
an ambassador, and then wish to leak it? Would Trump risk
creating a smoking gun of corruption over catering fees? Would
the embassy want to put itself on front pages and potentially
muddy relations over the same? Or would the journalist or the
article's source be working an agenda to discredit a politician
by piggy-backing on an existing narrative Trump's critics are
predisposed to agree with?
In the end, an intelligence officer rarely knows what is 100
percent true, so they assign a rating to information, such as
high, medium or low confidence, and act on the information (or
not) in line with that.
A reader can never know with certainty the truth about an
anonymously-sourced story. But while anything is possible, only
some things are probable, and that's usually the way you bet.
The kind of "who done its," "why did they do its," deep
suspicions and flying accusations of the election season are
unlikely to disappear on Inauguration Day. Partisan divisions,
perhaps the sharpest in modern American history, will drive the
media. Every news outlet will face pressures to break news ahead
of the competition. In 2017, engaging with the media is not
longer a passive process. Caveat Lector - let the reader beware.
(by Peter Van Buren)