Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Odd shots, 08: Use of anonymous sources

This is the eighth post in a series about the ways that people online blame the media for society’s ills. The title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” The first post appeared on 24 August but there was an earlier post on 18 February this year titled ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’.

This survey started on 25 September and ran until 11 October. Times shown are Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) except after 6 October, when they are Australian Eastern Daylight Time.

A jibe that journalists overuse anonymous sources is frequently evident, as the first case in this survey shows. But, soon enough, there was a case where an anonymous source became a whistleblower and, when that happened, people started getting behind the journalists involved. Their common enemy, now, was the politician (Donald Trump) that everyone on the left loves to hate.

To start with: a typical grouch about using anonymity when deploying material from a source in a story. On 25 September at 6.26am BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg tweeted, “Another source says Jacob Rees-Mogg described what happened as 'constitutional coup' – [Rees-Mogg’s] team [is] not denying tonight, but [he] won't comment.” Rees-Mogg is a conservative British politician serving as leader of the House of Commons. The tweet was part of a thread about the reactions of politicians in the UK to news that the Supreme Court had disallowed the prime minister’s prorogation of Parliament. In response to this tweet, at 6.28am Alok Jha, the science correspondent of The Economist, another UK media outlet, retweeted her tweet with a comment of his own: “Seriously, this anonymous ‘another source’ thing is getting mega tedious.”

Then, on 27 September, the shit really hit the fan. At 4.01am on that day there was a tweet from the New York Times that said, “Breaking News: The whistle-blower is said to be a CIA officer who was assigned to work at the White House. His complaint suggests he is a trained analyst.” The story was that Trump had promised the president of Ukraine a loan if he would give Trump incriminating information about the son of Joe Biden, one of the Democrats up for nomination as the party’s presidential candidate ahead of the 2020 election. Information had come from the White House that had prompted the Democrats to announce that they would launch a Congressional enquiry into the case.

A few minutes later, at 4.06am on the same day, 27 September, the NY Times tweeted, “Here's more from Dean Baquet, our executive editor, on why we published limited information about the whistle-blower whose claims led Democrats to begin an impeachment inquiry against President Trump.”

In response to this, at 5.31am Mieke Eoyang, a VP at Third Way (“a national think tank that champions modern center-left ideas”) tweeted, “Message the @nytimes is sending to IC whistleblowers: even if you do your best to follow the rules to protect your identity, we will hunt you down and identify you, unless you publish your allegations anonymously in our op-Ed pages.” Then, retweeting her tweet and adding a comment was former Newsweek journalist Jeff Stein, who at 6.25am said, “Good question raised here by @MiekeEoyang : Maybe NYT reporters should double down on exposing identity of insider who penned famous Op-ed, rather than publish anonymously sourced speculation on Ukrainegate whistleblower.” Then Neil McMahon, an Australian journalist with 10,324 followers, tweeted, “True. It's a curious argument from NYT editor Dean Baquet that we need to know information about the whistleblower to assess their credibility but has zipped lips about Anonymous who penned that famous oped.”

I didn’t know what the op-ed piece referred to in these tweets was but, presumably, it was something about a politician that the newspaper had received from a whistleblower to publish on its website.

At 7.10am on the same day, a man named George Little, who describes himself as former chief spokesman for the US Department of Defense and the CIA, tweeted, “I was @CIA spokesman when @nytimes relaxed its standards for publishing the names of or identifying information about @CIA officers. I fought it. It's still wrong today. Whistleblowers in particular should be treated like newspaper sources, which the NYTimes staunchly protects.”

I saw a tweet from Jennifer Brandel, co-founder of media consultancy Hearken, at 12.45pm on the same day, that went, “Some math to put #CancelNYT in context. If the @nytimes publishes ~250 stories a day, which is 90,000 per year, and you read every one, and thereby learn a ton but disagree with their choices on even let’s say 5% - that’s 4,500 stories. How much are the other 84k worth to you?” The #CancelNYT hashtag had already been going for a while and I tuned in and it was being used widely. The news outlet Business Insider reported on that day:
The whistleblower who filed an explosive national-security complaint against President Donald Trump is a CIA officer who was once assigned to the White House, The New York Times reported Thursday.
The hashtag had slowed down by the following day but the reaction to the newspaper’s action in revealing some details about the identity of the whistleblower was a striking reminder, if any were needed to remind us again, of the power of social media and of the way that it has changed the world. And on the same day the Guardian used another anonymous source in its story following up on the information release, which was titled, “'This is very strange': Ukraine's view of the Trump whistleblower complaint.” The story included this:
“Politics should not affect whether our troops get what they need, supporting the guys who are out there,” said Mykhailo, a veteran of the conflict who served in 2014 and 2015, who spoke on condition that his last name not be used.
On 27 September the Huffington Post published a story that used another anonymous source, this time to allege that the White House had stored transcripts of the US president’s conversations with the Ukranian president on a server designed for other types of documents: those containing classified secrets. The story said:
An explosive letter from an unnamed intelligence official was released Thursday detailing attempts by the White House to cover up Trump’s wrongdoing.  
On more than one occasion, White House officials put transcripts of Trump’s conversations into a “standalone computer system” that was meant for storing sensitive and classified intelligence information.
By 29 September tweets in the #CancelNYT hashtag had all but dried up.

Then the case of another anonymous source blew up in the public sphere. Again, it was related to Trump. I first saw signs of activity on 1 October at 8.40am when Ben Dreyfuss, the editorial director of US news outlet Mother Jones, tweeted, “One of the reasons I want this presidency to end so soon is so I can read about the dysfunctional daily lives of cabinet level bagmen who spent the peaks of their careers not leading vast departments and creating change but being butlers to an old man with internet poisoning.” At 8.43am on the same day Anthony Nungaray, a California State University scientist replied to this tweet with this, “The books and subsequent movie is gonna be epic. It'll take years of evidence unraveling, numerous indictments and criminal trials, but it'll be worth it. I can hardly fucking wait.”

This exchange of tweets related to a story that had broken this morning in Australia about an allegation that Donald Trump had asked for help from the Australian government to get information on Robert Mueller, the ex-director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which he led from 2001 to 2013). The people involved in the case were a former Liberal Party politician, Alexander Downer, and Goerge Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign aide. His Wikipedia page says:
On or about May 10, 2016, at London's Kensington Wine Rooms, Papadopoulos allegedly told the top Australian diplomat to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, that Russia was in possession of emails relating to Hillary Clinton.
Mueller had been visible in the public sphere investigating what were allegations of wrongdoing by the US president, in effect receiving information from Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Now, Trump was trying to dirty Mueller’s reputation. A story in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) on this morning had the headline, “Donald Trump asked Scott Morrison to help discredit Mueller probe” into Russian election interference. Morrison is the Australian prime minister.  The story said:
Details of the phone call were restricted to only a select number of senior officials, mirroring the handling of Trump's controversial phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, The New York Times reported on Monday local time (Tuesday AEST).
A bit further down the page the story went on:
Australia's former high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, helped trigger an initial FBI investigation into Trump's links with Russia after having drinks in London with Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos. 
Downer has said that Papadopoulos told him at the bar Russia had damaging material on Trump's presidential rival Hillary Clinton.
On 1 October at 6.39am Papadopoulos tweeted, “I have been right about Downer from the beginning. A wannabe spy and Clinton errand boy who is about to get exposed on the world stage. Great reporting, NYTs! Mifsud is next.” A story had appeared in the New York Times on Monday. “Clinton” referred to here is former US secretary of state and 2016 Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whom Trump beat in the 2016 presidential poll. “Mifsud” referred to Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic who, according to Google (quoting Wikipedia), “became involved with George Papadopoulos, an advisor to the Donald Trump presidential campaign, and was later accused of being a link between that campaign and Russia. In 2018, he was described as missing, and an Italian court listed his location as ‘residence unknown’.”

On the same day at 8.34am Simon Cullen, a UK freelance journalist, tweeted, “Here’s the letter Australian ambassador @JoeHockey wrote to the White House in May, offering Australia’s support to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation. (Via @KerrieYaxley)” Joe Hockey is the current Australian ambassador to the US. Kerrie Yaxley is a political reporter for Australian TV station Channel Nine, which owns the SMH. Cullen’s tweet contained an image showing a letter on official letterhead (see below).

On 1 October at 7.55am, Antony Green, the ABC’s election analyst, tweeted, “'Clinton errand boy'! Downer as a representative of Australia reported a conversation to his government, which is exactly what he was supposed to do in his nation's interest.”

The seed had been planted and was growing daily in this new world of commoditised messages we live in. Every claim seems to be meet with an equal and opposite counterclaim as the polarised extremes battled for attention in the public sphere. The story had new facets added to it day after day as the political back-and-forth rolled on. 

On 2 October at 5.33am Washington, DC, resident Matthew Yglesias (who had 438,289 followers when I checked his profile) tweeted, “I was confused as to exactly what the conspiracy theory involving Italy that Trump and Barr are pushing was so I looked into it and ... it’s wild stuff.” The tweet came with a link to a story on the website of US news outlet Vox about an investigation by US Attorney General Willian Barr into “the origins of the FBI investigation of links between Russia and the Trump campaign”. 

The thing was still going two days later, on 4 October. At 2.37am on that day Papadopoulos tweeted, “We will soon find out who directed Alexander Downer to spy on me. The Australians don’t freelance without our rubber-stamp, this came from the top of the CIA.”

Then on 4 October at 11.04am Trump tweeted, “As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!” Papadopoulos tweeted on 6 October at 8.10am, “I understand the effort to try and discredit me for two years, and ongoing, because of the information I released that exposed the worst spying scandal in modern American history. This will continue unhindered. We are at the precipice, folks. Stay focused.” 

The Associated Press, a US media agency tweeted on 9 October at 8.26am, “BREAKING: White House notifies House that Trump administration will not participate in impeachment probe, which it calls ‘illegitimate.’.” On 9 October at 9.05am Jim Sciutto, a CNN anchorman, tweeted, “New: WH official who listened to Trump's July phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky described the conversation as ‘crazy’ and ‘frightening,’ leaving that aide ‘shaken’, according to whistleblower complaint. @cnn reporting.” CNN is a US cable TV network.

I’ll finish this survey with a different case, not related to Trump at all. (Surprise!) On 11 October at 6.32am Mark Di Stefano, a BuzzFeed UK journalist, started a thread:
During the Brexit media panel today at Reuters Institute, @puzzlesthewill said something that stuck with me — he just succinctly put something we’ve been all talking about re: anonymous sourcing. He said it was something he discussed with @flashboy. Here goes: 
"Journalists sometimes merge habits and principles. There are lots of habits of how journalism is done that start in important principles. Protecting your sources is an important principle. Giving people a right of reply is an important principle."
"When malicious actors find ways to exploit those and turn them against your audiences, it’s time to update your reporting process so that your powerful platforms and principles can’t be misused."
The account with the Twitter handle @puzzlesthewill is Will Moy, executive director of Full Fact, a UK factchecking charity. On its “About” page, the organisation says, “We are a registered charity. We actively seek a diverse range of funding and are transparent about all our sources of income.” The account @flashboy is Tom Phillips, editor at Full Fact.

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