Accuracy in Media

Donald Trump Jr. and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ended up on the same page on one issue last week – frustration with the use of anonymous sources in attack stories in the mainstream media.

Ocasio-Cortez lashed out at Politico for using anonymous sources in a story that said she and groups with which she has been associated were planning to recruit primary opponents for fellow Democrats, including Hakeem Jeffries, who became the No.5 member of House leadership after Ocasio-Cortez upset Joe Crowley, who previously held the position.

“One disappointment about DC is the gossip that masquerades as ‘reporting,’ Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “This story has:

–Not a SINGLE named or verifiable source.

–Only ONE on-the-record comment, which is a denial.

My dad had a name for junk articles like this: “Birdcage lining.”

Later, she tweeted: “For the record, this is the second @politico article about me in a short period of time with *0* named sources to back claims containing false information. Their articles are printed + distributed to **Congressional offices** — w/ no named sources.”

Politico said it couldn’t even tell from her remarks what she considered incorrect in the article, but Trump Jr. commiserated over Twitter. “Welcome to our world,” he tweeted. “You think that’s bad? Imagine what it’s like when they actually hate you.”

The Washington Post, which has written stories about the Trump administration that relied solely on 20 or more anonymous sources, covered the Trump Jr.-Ocasio-Cortez exchange in “’Welcome to our world’: Donald Trump Jr. backs Ocasio-Cortez’s complaints about ‘false news” by Allyson Chiu.

After unfurling the details of remarks by Ocasio-Cortez and Trump Jr., the story veered off into a discussion of why and how media outlets use anonymous sources.

It mentioned a New York Times survey in 2004 that found the largest complaint among readers – “far and away” – was not delivery or political bias or factual errors but use of anonymous sources. “It goes to the heart of our credibility,” a Times reporter was quoted as saying.

Chiu’s story quoted from a Post story by Paul Farhi in 2013, in which executive editor Martin Baron told Farhi the paper had no choice but to use anonymous sources.

“The fact is that many companies, government agencies and institutions of every type do their best to make sure people with knowledge won’t speak publicly,” Baron told Farhi. “They apply pressure and, at worst, fire people. At other times, people who speak openly can suffer recrimination. Or they are bound by policies that prohibit use of their name. As unpleasant as anonymity may be, very often the alternative is no information whatsoever.”

Chiu wrote that the Post tried a no-anonymous-sources policy under orders from then-executive editor Ben Bradlee, who directed the paper’s Watergate coverage. The policy lasted two days. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal were getting stories the Post didn’t have. “The paper’s readers were being deprived of significant information,” Chiu quoted an assistant managing editor at the time saying.

Farhi’s 2013 story spoke of a new trend toward more anonymous sources and a trend within that trend of providing reasons why anonymity must be granted, denying readers knowledge of who is speaking and what motivations the unidentified speakers may have had.

One speaker could not be identified as the contents of a speech by then-Vice President Joe Biden because “the speech was by-invitation only.” Another couldn’t comment on Syria “because of the delicacy of the situation.” A Democratic operative in Boston couldn’t be quoted by name when he praised a labor union’s organizing ability “because he did not want to offend other unions.”

Although amusing, those lines continue to be a source of frustration for readers, including Ocasio-Cortez.

After people, including a CBS reporter, hit back at her, saying she sounded like President Trump in her condemnations of the press, she responded: “It cuts both ways – if all an article contains is anonymous sources for gossip (as opposed to whistleblowing), how can readers tell the difference between rumor and fact?’”

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