Friday, March 1, 2013

The Woodward Affair and Anonymous Sources

At The Washington Post, Paul Farhi writes about the conflict between Bob Woodward and the White House:
(And if you’re a fan of inside baseball, don’t even get started on the political-media daisy chain and incest fest at work here: that is, Woodward first spouted off in The Post, then spouted off further to two Politico reporters, Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, who used to work with Woodward at The Post, whose reporter now is following up the Politico article by quoting Woodward about a story initiated by Woodward himself.)
This past week, we talked about reporting and anonymous sources. At National Journal, Ron Fournier writes about a White House official's reaction to a tweet comparing Obama and Nixon.
I had angered the White House, particularly a senior White House official who I am unable to identify because I promised the person anonymity. Going back to my first political beat, covering Bill Clinton’s administration in Arkansas and later in Washington, I’ve had a practice that is fairly common in journalism: A handful of sources I deal with regularly are granted blanket anonymity. Any time we communicate, they know I am prepared to report the information at will (matters of fact, not spin or opinion) and that I will not attribute it to them.
This is an important way to build a transparent and productive relationship between reporters and the people they cover. Nothing chills a conversation faster than saying, “I’m quoting you on this.”
The official angered by my Woodward tweet sent me an indignant e-mail. “What’s next, a Nazi analogy?” the official wrote, chastising me for spreading “bull**** like that” I was not offended by the note, mild in comparison to past exchanges with this official. But it was the last straw in a relationship that had deteriorated.
As editor-in-chief of National Journal, I received several e-mails and telephone calls from this White House official filled with vulgarity, abusive language, and virtually the same phrase that Politico characterized as a veiled threat. “You will regret staking out that claim,” The Washington Post reporter was told.
Once I moved back to daily reporting this year, the badgering intensified. I wrote Saturday night, asking the official to stop e-mailing me. The official wrote, challenging Woodward and my tweet. “Get off your high horse and assess the facts, Ron,” the official wrote.
I wrote back:
“I asked you to stop e-mailing me. All future e-mails from you will be on the record -- publishable at my discretion and directly attributed to you. My cell-phone number is … . If you should decide you have anything constructive to share, you can try to reach me by phone. All of our conversations will also be on the record, publishable at my discretion and directly attributed to you.”
I haven’t heard back from the official. It was a step not taken lightly because the note essentially ended our working relationship. Without the cloak of anonymity, government officials can’t be as open with reporters – they can’t reveal as much information and they can’t explain the nuance and context driving major events.

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