The abuse of anonymous sources is one of the greatest weaknesses of modern American journalism, and it was on full display this week in a front-page New York Times attack on the security company Blackwater Worldwide.
The story, which accuses the company of authorizing $1 million in bribes to silence criticism after a deadly incident involving Blackwater security guards in Iraq, was based not just on your average anonymous sources but two disgruntled ex-employees.
“The piece is long and has the appearance, amid many pointless digressions, of substance,” Noah Pollak noted in Commentary magazine. “But there is almost nothing to it — certainly nothing warranting being printed in a reputable newspaper.”
Pollak outlined numerous qualifying phrases throughout the piece, including “they did not know” and “it was not clear.” The article also cited a State Department official — yet another anonymous source — who said U.S. diplomats are not aware of any bribes by Blackwater.
As a responsible journalist, on the other hand, Pollak went straight to the source and cited him by name. Pollak interviewed Cofer Black, a Blackwater employee at the time who the Times said worked out a compensation agreement with the families of Iraqi victims in the incident.
That’s not what Black told Pollak: “I never confronted Erik Prince or any other Blackwater official regarding any allegations of bribing Iraqi officials and was unaware of any plot or guidance for Blackwater to bribe Iraqi officials.”
Anonymous sources should not be abandoned altogether because sometimes protecting a source’s identity is essential to breaking important news. But as granted by the Times and other outlets these days, anonymity is often nothing more than a shield designed to hide a liberal agenda.
Such behavior rightly makes readers less trusting of any story that is anonymously sourced.