Inside Journalism: Use of anonymous sources is hardly Fake News

Back in the 1970s, four journalists at The Fresno Bee newspaper were jailed for refusing to give up the name of a source — a so-called “leaker” in today’s lingo. By the time my career began in that Bee newsroom in the early 1990s, the Bee Four, as they had become known, were legends — but not just because they had gone to jail to protect a source.

For me, those four newsmen were living examples of what journalism was all about — searching for the truth, holding the powerful accountable and protecting the interests of the people, even if it meant sacrificing their own personal freedoms. In this instance, there was a corrupt city councilman, a lucrative garbage contract, some bribery money and grand jury testimony that would have exposed it all — had it not been sealed from the public. Thanks to the person who leaked the testimony to The Bee, the community was better informed.

Credit: Glenn McCoy

As any journalist will tell you, anonymous sources are always a last resort. If journalists get the same piece of information from five different people, there will be an effort — a huge effort — to get at least one of those people to talk “on-the-record.” Understandably, those who are putting their jobs or even their personal safety on the line by sharing information with reporters are hesitant about going public. Without them, though, corruption and abuse has the potential to run rampant — at city hall, in governor’s mansions and, yes, even at the White House.

Things haven’t changed much since the days of the Bee Four. Like today, the outrage coming from the accused isn’t directed at the information itself but instead at the leakage of that information. Go back and look at Donald Trump’s tweets (if he hasn’t blocked you yet) to get a sense of where his outrage is directed. Remember when he got mad at the New York Times and threatened to change the libel laws so he could sue? He doesn’t throw that threat around much anymore, does he? Instead he just complains about leakers, attacks news outlets and tries to minimize their credibility by screaming “FAKE NEWS!”

Frankly, I’m not buying Trump’s cries. Through his own words and actions, he has squandered any trust equity or benefit-of-the-doubt that I might have been willing to offer when he won the election. But the reason I tend to put more value in the words that I read in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other reputable news outlets is because I know first-hand what painstaking lengths the reporters and editors at those publications go through to make sure their information is rock solid. Those news reports didn’t go straight from the reporters’ keyboards to the public. They were heavily scrutinized first, by senior editors and certainly the lawyers, too.

Do they occasionally get something wrong or miss some sort of nuance to the news? Sure — but these news outlets are also quick to acknowledge the mistake, fix it, highlight the update and issue an apology. When was the last time the current commander-in-chief took any sort of personal responsibility for telling a bold-faced lie, misrepresenting a fact or retweeting a rumor that has no basis?

The Republicans in Congress have already shown that they’re willing to compromise their morals, ethics and integrity by turning a blind eye to what Trump says and does, even when it goes against the basic principles of democracy and does harm to the security of our country. In a short time, Trump has compromised longstanding relationships with key allies, funneled tax dollars into his personal businesses (another golf weekend at Mar-a-Lago, anyone?) and proposed policies that do more harm than good to average Americans, especially to the communities that supported him most. And the Congressional majority leadership has simply dismissed it all as growing pains for a President who “is new at this.”

In the end, it will be the news media and this growing group of anonymous sources — some might call them “leakers” while others might call them “patriots” — that will deliver the truth to the people and hold the powerful accountable. Even the courts are stepping in to keep Trump in check in a way that the legislative branch has not.

Whether Trump makes it through a full term or not, I believe that the United States is strong enough to survive this period of divisiveness and turmoil, in large part because we have a system of checks and balances that includes a free press. Like it or not, anonymous sources are an important part of that system.

And despite the absurd warning that the deputy Attorney General released (or was bullied into releasing) about anonymous sources, I would advise my fellow Americans to not simply dismiss the information that anonymous sources are sharing. Instead, pay attention to the detailed information in these reports, the non-denial outrage and how the pieces of the puzzle continue to fall into place when it comes to Russia, obstruction and Trump.

Based on the reactions coming out of Washington, I’d say that the news reports using anonymous sources are anything but fake.