Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How to treat sources who lie: expose them

John Drescher, of the Raleigh News & Observer, has a commentary today about a conversation he had with John Edwards in the early days of the sex scandal.

Here is the most noteworthy passage:

By the time Edwards called, we had decided not to publish the story in the Friday paper. But Edwards didn't know that. I wanted to hear what he had to say. We still could have reversed our decision.

Edwards told me that the allegations were not true.

He said The N&O was the paper that arrived on his doorstep every day, the one read by friends of him and his wife, Elizabeth.

He said he'd never called before to complain or state his case. Given Elizabeth's health -- she has cancer -- he said it was especially important to him that the story not run in The N&O.

He was calling from an airport, and we spoke only a few minutes.

I made no promises.

Edwards' comments were off the record. Because he has acknowledged he lied, I feel free to report them.
This is exactly the right journalistic position to take. If you agree to give a source anonymity, or to speak with them off the record, you should honor that promise.

Unless they lie.

American journalism has become poisoned with the trend of granting anonymity or off-the-record protection to sources who use it as cover to spread lies. Think of the anonymous sources who used the New York Times to promote false claims of WMD in Iraq.

Such people should not be allowed to continue hiding behind grants of anonymity once it becomes clear that they manipulated reporters in order to spread disinformation.

If more news outlets began exposing the identities of sources who lie, our political discourse would be better for it. True, there are many government officials who would stop leaking information. But if those officials are leaking lies, what have we lost?

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