‘Anonymous sources’ who weren’t: No apologies or rescinded Pulitzers for wrong stories of consequence

Special to WorldTribune.com


By Bill Juneau

In the news business, the use of “sources” as a vehicle for introducing key information into a story plays a big role in earning print space or air time for hot news. Political stories, especially those which favor the “woke” position and the cancel culture attitude, frequently rely upon “anonymous sources” to tie questionable political conduct to decision makers whom they oppose.

News organizations speak of the need for “transparency” in government. But what about in the news?

‘The Pulitzer committee never rescinded or even acknowledged its unearned award.’

In the good old days, reporters who intended to use material from anonymous sources needed to get approval from their news manager before sending the story to the desk. Is that rule still followed? Only if today’s bosses have rather lenient standards.

Here in the United States, “sources” for news stories are protected and journalists have gone to jail rather than reveal the identity of the person who provided the information for controversial stories which may have stirred up the passion and excitement of readers and viewers.

But in this era of “fake news,” the use of unnamed sources has flourished. Once an unnamed source referred to someone of authority who spoke “off the record,” as a means of protecting his career or even his life. But now, in many cases, sources are unnamed because they have no names.

In just recent days there have been “sources” for NBC, the New York Times and The Washington Post stories claiming that former New York Mayor Giuliani had been a purveyor of Russian disinformation and that the FBI warned him he was on the block. The stories were false, and the companies, unexpectedly, acknowledged the error and apologized.

If a journalist believes that he or she is on to something of consequence, yet lacks the authoritative words to support publication, what is he likely to do? Sit on the story? Not with today’s 24-hour news cycle. He has to get in print or on the air.

So he attributes the information to “reliable sources” or to “anonymous sources” in high up positions, and ergo, the story is published and takes hold and often leads to investigations. The reporter is lauded for his expose, and the the subject of the story gets roasted by the media, whether deserved or not, and may even wind up getting indicted. It’s all part of that mirage known as investigative journalism which is always justified by the public’s right to know.

Rarely does the use of make-believe “sources” come back to bite the newsman or his newspaper or TV station. But it happens, as it did in the Giuliani debacle. The more likely scenario is that the episode simply fades away with nary a blemish on the lying newsman and his media bosses. Accountability for misstatements and intentional lies by the media? Simply put: There is none; no penalty for lying.

During my quarter of a century as a reporter, rewrite man, and night city editor at the Chicago Tribune, I watched the use of “sources” gradually grow from something done on a special occasion to an everyday practice in the gathering of news. Sometimes the results were good, and sometimes innocent people were dragged through the mud.

Recently, we saw the use of counterfeit “anonymous sources” by the New York Times in its follow up stories of the riots inside the capitol building on January 6. Protesters were passionate in their belief that President Trump had been pushed from his office by way of an election which had the distinct odor of cheating and fraud. During that disorder in the Capitol building, Veteran Police Sgt. Brian Sicknick, 42, died as a screaming mob trespassed, but the precise reason for his death was not known, until the NYT turned loose its reliable “sources.”

Explaining the death, the powerful New York paper wrote that “Pro Trump Supporters,” according to two unidentified law enforcement officials, “killed Sgt. Sicknick by striking him in the head with a fire extinguisher.” The hot story swept through the nation, reprinted by hundreds of other news papers and highlighted by electronic media outlets like CNN and MSNBC. So strong was the reaction to the brutal killing by “Trump Supporters,” that it fueled the impeachment of President Trump on charges that he “incited an insurrection.”

Articles of Impeachment were drafted and approved in the liberal House of Representatives and supporting documents outlined how Sicknick had been downed from a head bashing. President Trump was tried before members of the Senate and found not guilty of all charges.

Eventually, it came out that the mighty Times “relied” on “unreliable” — if any — sources: the initial story that Sicknick had been beaten with an extinguisher was not true. It was a lie. The dishonesty of the fire extinguisher report was debunked by the D.C. Medical Examiner, Dr. Francisco Diaz, who determined that Sgt. Sicknick had suffered one or two strokes, and that the manner of his death was “natural causes.” Personally. I would be surprised to hear that any corner of the media ever apologized for pushing that phony narrative.

“Sources” become the foundation for news stories which rip apart public officials not to the liking of the author. Highly placed “sources” are, in my judgment, invented frequently, but generally speaking, there is no fall out, and most often the use of a bogus “source” will open a door to wrongdoing, and in the end, the mendacious news organization and reporter end up being lauded for their diligence. Reporters win awards, and feel that the decision to fudge a little over “sources” was the right one.

After President Trump took office in January 2017, the drumbeat started that the new Commander-in-Chief was a pawn of Vladimir Putin and was “colluding” with Russia. The Washington Post and the New York Times began their crusade on this “collusion” delusion and poured out stories. In the Spring following his election, Robert Mueller, an ex FBI chief, was appointed as a special counsel to the Department of Justice to investigate the alleged misdeeds and seditious behavior of President Trump.

As the investigation went forward, the Post and the Times continued with stories of the “collusion,” and way too many were based upon “sources high up in his administration.” President Trump denounced each and every story as “fake” and as lies. “Who the hell are these ‘sources,’ ” the President demanded to know.

With the saturation of stories pounding the President for his traitorous behavior and his hand holding with President Putin of Russia, the Pulitzer Prize committee announced that it was awarding a prestigious annual citation jointly to the New York Times and the Washington Post for their combined exposes of the Trump collusion with Russia.

Then the bomb came from special counsel Robert Mueller following his 22-month investigation that President Trump had not at any time colluded with Russians. The finding by Mueller vindicating the President of any wrongdoing made use of more than 2,800 subpoenas, 500 search warrants, and the interviews of approximately 500 witnesses. The cost of the investigation to taxpayers was estimated to be more than $30 million dollars.

The Pulitzer committee never rescinded or even acknowledged its unearned award.

In the Untied States, Freedom of the Press as set forth in the First Amendment to the Constitution, is unique in the world. Even with its flaws, a newspaper is a check on government which no constitution can ever provide. But the media must be accountable for its lies when they are exposed as with Sgt. Sicknick’s death and in the case of the “Purloined Pulitzer Prize.”

The use of “anonymous sources” is a respected tool for journalists so long as there are real “sources.” Claiming “anonymous sources” as a substitute for journalistic investigation is unacceptable. Journalists should be subject to some form of sanctions when their abuse and manufacturing of “informed sources who cannot be identified” are used recklessly by print reporters and TV pundits with a mission to destroy.

Bill Juneau worked for 25 years as a reporter and night city editor at the Chicago Tribune. Subsequently he became a partner in a law firm and also served as a village prosecutor and as a consultant to the Cook County Circuit Court and to the Cook County Medical Examiner. He is currently writing columns and the ‘Florida Bill‘ blog.