All these Donald Trump stories are coming from anonymous sources. That makes me worried.
I read four different stories in five different publications today about Donald Trump struggling to keep control of things in the White House. They all portrayed a man who was errant, frustrated and whimsical.
They all had something else in common: the content of each and every story depended, in many cases entirely so, on unnamed sources. “U.S. Officials.” “A senior White House advisor.” “Someone with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity.”
The White House has been leaky of late. So leaky, in fact, that all five publications where I found breaking stories Monday about Trump divulging classified intelligence had their very own unidentified individuals somewhere inside Trump’s offices, each spilling the same, nearly identical story.
That makes me very worried about what might be happening behind the more impermeable walls at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The willingness of outlets like The Washington Post and New York Times to publish stories without identifiable sources has grown in recent years. Journalism ethics groups have grappled over the issue. At one time in journalism past, anonymous sources were considered about as acceptable as four-letter words. Now, they appear almost daily.
There seem to be more and more Washington insiders willing to spill the beans on their boss. A divided public, meanwhile, thirsts for any indication that the most despised early-term president in history is in the midst of a calamitous failure.
Therein appears a perfect opportunity for a calamitous and widespread folly of journalism.
Anonymous sources, no matter where they are used, are problematic in two very big ways.
- They absolve the source of responsibility for accuracy.
- They disguise the source’s intentions, sometimes from journalist and reader alike.
Presidents, among many motivated and newsworthy individuals, have long used these convenient vulnerabilities, taking advantage of the competetive thirst at major news outlets to push stories that achieve political, personal or financial objectives. The New York Times infamously reported that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Those stories were then widely cited and circulated, fomenting public support behind the 2004 invasion of Iraq.
It turned out this intelligence was unverified. The Times reporter who penned those stories, Judith Miller, had used anonymous sources inside the George W. Bush administration to fuel her reporting. It turned out that those Bush administration sources used Miller more.
Thus, the most recent round of bombastic White House stories got me thinking about the possiblity that Donald Trump, like Bush, could use reporters eager to score an anonymously fed scoop to his advantage.
What if White House officials were leaking information to the press because Trump told them to? Why would Trump do that?
Even if the latest rash of White House reports paint Trump in an unfavorable light, the president may have much to gain by overwhelming reporters with juicy stories, like one Monday morning about him acting on fake news, or the one Monday afternoon about him divulging state secrets to theRussian ambassador and foreign minister. Both relied entirely on a glut of leaky anonymous White House sources.
If he were to pump his own misinformation into the anonymous news pipeline, even if it is self effacing, Trump might stand to gain in a number of ways.
Many Americans, in particular many of the Americans who voted him into office, distrust newspapers and cable television news stations. Trump knows this and has already used it to his advantage.
If Trump were to throttle the press with fake leaks via coordinated and instructed anonymous sources, he could build a chasm between what is proveable and unproveable in the national narrative, widening room for speculation and alternative facts that sustain his undying supporters.
In this scenario, Trump can point to the reports as “unverified” and “fake news,” using reporters’ journalistic latitude and any potential (or intentional) mistakes to rally and mobilize his support base.
Juicing anonymous sources could also help Trump cultivate his own narrative, away from what is being reported by professional journalists. If his narrative tracks more closely to outcomes than the narrative cast by annonymously sourced (and deliberately misled) journalists, he stands to gain an upper hand in his so-called “war with the press.”
This already happened once. In the weeks leading up to the election, many news outlets cited anonymous Trump campaign sources who claimed that their candidate was growing dejected and had little expectation of winning the election. When those reports turned out false — in other words when Trump won the presidency — Trump made an easy straw man out of the “lying press” his campaign officials acted to deceive under cover of anonymity.
The number of publications obtaining anonymous quotes on a daily basis alarms me. I never covered the White House or Washington as a journalist, but I have covered a number of local governments. Even at the local level, it can be a challenge to inspire just one source to turn their back on a boss and risk their career to provide information, even anonymously. The fact that so many anonymous White House sources are appearing in so many different publications on a daily basis seems strange, given my experience.
If Trump is instructing his own personnel to mislead the press, I fear it could lead to a disastrous and potentially fatal day of reckoning for the fourth estate we have so long held dear to our democracy.
Many Americans read and watch these recent reports with eyes eager to see a Trump implosion, and perhaps an early exit. If that doesn’t happen, and Trump’s administration retains its structural integrity long enough to discredit the blistering reports that now dominate news feeds, he could perhaps achieve an outcome that many of the world’s most famous strongmen have come to prize: the discrediting and dissolution of a free and independent press.
John Harper is a career journalist who has worked and appeared in publications including The New Orleans Times-Picayune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Miami Herald, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Washington Times. He is founder and CEO of Grapple, a startup company developing news source tracking software.