In 1972, two Washington Post reporters investigating the Watergate scandal relied on an anonymous source to break one of the most meaningful news stories in American history. The nameless person close to the investigation, dubbed “Deep Throat” by Post editors, turned out to be Mark Felt, the associate director of the F.B.I. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s dogged efforts contributed to exposing President Richard Nixon’s involvement the Watergate break-in and led to a Pulitzer Prize.
How times have changed. Forty-five years later, with a more serious and far-reaching scandal value clouding Washington, D.C. politics, the Department of Justice is issuing warnings to the American public and, ironically the press, to beware anonymous sources.
Department of Justice
Office of Public Affairs
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, June 15, 2017
Statement by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Anonymous Allegations
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein today issued the following statement:
“Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials,’ particularly when they do not identify the country – let alone the branch or agency of government – with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated. Americans should be skeptical about anonymous allegations. The Department of Justice has a long-established policy to neither confirm nor deny such allegations.”
Press Release Number:
The statement by the deputy attorney general is another ominous twist in the Trump administration’s attempts to shape public opinion. Relying on anonymous sources is a long-standing policy of journalists across the country. It is also a practice subject to scrutiny and specific ethical and procedural rules to ensure quality journalism and reliability.
Every media outlet has guidelines on the use of anonymous sources. For example, the Reuters Handbook of Journalism advises reporters “Unnamed sources must have direct knowledge of the information they are giving us, or must represent an authority with direct knowledge.”
A professional journalist’s richest currency is fact-based information. Moreover, unlike the current examples from the Trump government, reporters and editors maintain integrity and trust by following rules. The Justice Department’s feeble effort to delegitimize news sourcing is not a warning, but another base attack on the First Amendment and the fundamental necessity of a free press in democracy.
Additionally, Rosenstein’s warning seems to contradict DOJ internal policy on nameless allegations vis-à-vis federal whistleblowing. In October 2013, the DOJ Office of Inspector General published a policy video that specifically addressed whether relators could remain anonymous. According to Senior Counsel at the time, Rob Storch, the DOJ’s own policy is to protect privacy:
“If you are willing to identify yourself, but you want to maintain your confidentiality, we’ll make every effort to honor a request for confidentiality and would only disclose your identity if it became inevitable that we had to do so. We would make every effort to maintain your confidentiality.”
While anonymity and confidentiality carry different levels of disclosure and reliability, it seems rather disingenuous for Rosenstein to issue warnings to the American public about the press. There appears to be no more than a semantic difference between confidential disclosure of federal wrongdoing to authorities and anonymous sourcing of illicit activity to a reporter, especially based on other aspects of DOJ’s disclosure policies.
Considering the outcome of the Watergate investigation and President Richard Nixon’s resignation, the press’ policies on anonymous sourcing served the nation well. There is little reason to believe that the same practices exercised in 1972 are not being applied in 2017.
By advising the American public to guard itself against the media, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has shredded the thin veil of impartiality that needs to exist between him and the president. He and his department now carry the appearance of complicity in Trump’s continued efforts to deflect attention from an ongoing investigation.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
Donald Trump attacked the media and the free press from the onset of his term. He has called the mainstream media fake and an enemy of the people. Last week, Congress attempted to rescind rules governing press interviews and access. This week, Rosenstein issues a propaganda statement to warn the public about press rules of sourcing.
The current administration is easily embarrassed by Donald Trump’s ignorance of office — his lack of experience, efficiency, understanding, and respect in relation to America’s democratic values and procedures. He is a man ill prepared to lead a country and he is a man without the mental capacity necessary for the enormity of his job. It is the press’ responsibility to expose truth — no matter how painful or embarrassing it may be to the president and his administration.
Whether it takes the form of a rash early morning tweet, or an officious warning from a supposedly independent agency, attacks on the press are attacks on the Constitution, and thus democracy. In the end, the anonymous sources protecting America’s democratic values are less of a threat than the leaders making vainglorious attacks on the country’s most basic guiding principles.