Newsweek is taking a beating over its now retracted story on abuses of the Quran in the presence of Muslim prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay. Such actions as flushing a copy down a toilet were said to have been done in an effort to get prisoners to talk. The story was based on an "unnamed source" and by way of doing penance for its monumental blunder, one that led indirectly to the death of some unhappy Afghans, Newsweek has assigned two editors to check out refereces to sources who are not named and will stop using the phrase, "unnamed source"
In my book, The Langauge of Politics, I remarked on another story by Newsweek (11/09/81, p. 32f) that used an astonishing number of references to unnamed sources in a story titled, "Who Makes U. S. Foreign Policy?" which was highly critical of the decision-making process in the Reagan administration. This was before President Reagan developed his coat of Teflon.
In this case, the story claimed that "the major players," Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, Defense Secretary, Casper Weinberger, and National Security Council head, Richard Allen, were at odds with each other in "public disagreement" and "private infighting." It went on to say that "few insiders would be surprised to see a shift in responsibilities -- and the departure of Allen within six months." In fact, Allen was gone in a month and Haig was gone within seven months.In this article, Newsweek employed 17 different uses of indefinite descriptions of sources in a mere 50 word story, which included "officials throughout the administration," "several of Reagon's closest advisors," "one top-ranking U.S. official," "one senior aide,""another [senior aide]," and "another confidant." It is impossible to tell how many different sources were being cited in these references. It might have been 17. It could have been 5 or 6. That is not a good thing. Moreover, the question arises as to how it is that such pseudo-descriptors as these and others are actually better than use of "unnamed source." An unnamed source by any other name smells as bad.
One of the more notorious recent uses of unnamed sources involved the outing CIA agent Valerie Plame by Robert Novak and other journalists in a story concerning the Bush Administration's false claim that Iraq purchased uranium from Niger. Novak claimed that
[retired diplomat Joseph C.] Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report.Outing of an undercover CIA agent is illegal.Maybe use of unnamed sources should be too. I say this in jest, well, partly in jest, since many of the true things we come to know are told to reporters by sources that would not have talked without assurances that they won't be named. The Watergate story comes immediately to mind -- we still don't know who Deep Throat is.
There are also problems when reporters actually name their sources but that is best reserved for another day.