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Who wants to know?

Eugene Volokh laments that Rathergate teaches us that we can't trust the media.

That's what's so sad: Surely the aggregate of Rathergate, the Jayson Blair scandal, the chronic misreporting about assault weapons, or any other individual incident, and everything else we've seen over the last several years often thanks to the media criticism of blogging (a medium that thrives on media criticism) has opened our eyes to just how little one can trust what one sees in the news media.

And yet no matter how skeptical one tries to be, one can't double-check everything. We have to trust outside sources. But the same sources that claim to be so trustworthy are, it turns out, often untrustworthy, sometimes in huge ways (falling for outright frauds) but also often in many small ways (media bias, whether political, social, or personal, that repeatedly leads to erroneous and misleading information).

I suspect this has been true all along it's just that we can't ignore it any more. We have to learn to live with a world of extraordinarily imperfect information. And that's a lot more work than assuming that the media (or at least certain media) is highly accurate.

Of course one shouldn't blindly trust the media; one shouldn't blindly trust anybody. Yes, it would be nice if we could rely on the media without having to be skeptical, but that's impossible.

Still, it's not quite as bleak as Eugene portrays it; there may be con men who are so slick that we never detect them, but most of the time there are warning signs. Here's a good rule of thumb -- for both news reporters and news consumers -- which can help us avoid the sorts of problems revealed by Rathergate: anonymity is a bad idea.

This entire Rathergate story turned into such a mess because it was based unnecessarily on an anonymous source. I don't suggest there are never reasons for anonymity. Sometimes a valuable source would be too afraid of losing his job or even his life if he came forward publicly. There are legitimate whistleblowers out there; there are people who testify against mafia defendants. There are alleged CIA agents whose husbands are lying ambassadors. But Bill Burkett was none of those. There was no rational reason why Bill Burkett should have been granted anonymity by CBS. The only reason he needed it was if he wanted to lie with impunity. (Oh, there could be innocent reasons why someone would want anonymity-- perhaps the simple desire to avoid being in the media spotlight, which admittedly can be overwhelming. But (a) that's just not a good enough reason, and (b) that doesn't apply to Bill Burkett, who has been all over the news in his campaign against Bush.)

If CBS had refused to grant Burkett anonymity, one of three things could have happened:

  1. He could have agreed to go public, in which case we have the ability to judge for ourselves whether he has any credibility, and CBS is off the hook even if the documents are forged. (Not that it absolves them of their responsibility to vet a story before putting it on the air, but they're no longer covering anything up.)
  2. He could have refused, and the phony documents never get publicized.
  3. He could have shopped the story to some other, less scrupulous, news outlet. In which case CBS is again off the hook.
Of course, it's easy to see CBS's thinking: if the story is true, they risk losing a scoop to some other news outlet. And that's true. But, then, that's a risk they may have to be willing to accept. After all, CBS would refuse to pay a source for a story, even if it caused them to lose the scoop, wouldn't they? Legitimate media outlets don't pay sources for news; that's ingrained in the profession. And so it doesn't happen. And yet, they still manage to report. They lose a few greedy sources, but that's a reasonable price to pay for confidence in the integrity of the story. If these mainstream outlets would collectively stop granting anonymity unnecessarily, the same thing would happen: they'd lose the people with hidden agendas, but they wouldn't lose many legitimate stories. And they'd rarely blunder into Rathergate-type debacles.

End anonymity. It's not a panacea for all that ails journalism -- Jayson Blair, media bias, dumb reporters who don't understand guns will all still be issues -- but it will eliminate at least one type of problem.

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Comments (1)

Dave:


So now Valerie Plame is an "alleged CIA agent"?

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