Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Don't use my name

Don't use my name: The anonymity game Washington Post

You've heard the pledges before: We're going to swear off the stuff, really we are. Or at least -- hic! -- reduce our consumption.

But journalists seem more addicted than ever to the elixir of anonymous sources. I'd be fine with unnamed sources who'd tell us what was really going on at the Minerals Management Agency while oil companies were allowed to write their own ticket with no real contingency plans. You know, people who might lose their jobs if they blew the whistle on wrongdoing -- the kind of folks for whom the shield of anonymity was intended.

For day-to-day political potshots, though, it's really become a kind of free pass: Here, say something snarky about someone who ticks you off and we'll publish it.

The latest example -- and this instantly hit the cable/talk radio circuit -- was the unnamed White House aide who took a swipe at the unions who backed Blanche Lincoln's primary opponent before her victory. "Organized labor," said the "senior White House official" who called Politico, "just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise."

Now you could say the White House ought to be above such pettiness. But if journalists simply said no -- no name, no blind quote -- such potshots wouldn't happen. Hey, if political antagonists want to poke each other in the eye, be my guest -- but don't depend on reporters to hide your identity.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald uses the incident to tee off on the D.C. press corps:

"Corruption and dishonesty are among the Washington vices which receive substantial attention, but cowardice is often overlooked, despite how pervasive it is. The news cycle of the last two days has been driven by an attack on organized labor from a 'senior White House official' who was willing to express these views only while hiding behind the fetal wall of anonymity extended by Politico. . . .

"That there is no remote journalistic justification for granting anonymity for these kinds of catty comments is self-evident, but that's not worth discussing, since the Drudgeified Politico has long ago established that they operate without any ethical constraints of any kind when it comes to such matters. The only anonymity standard Politico has is this: we grant it automatically the minute someone in power wants it (though on some level, in a warped sort of way, that's almost more admirable than what the NYT and Post do: pretend that they have strict anonymity standards while basically handing it out as promiscuously as Politico does).

"But what is striking is how often top White House officials -- who are among the most politically powerful people in the country -- are willing to inject views into the public discourse only if they can be assured that they will never be accountable for what they say. That is just unadulterated cowardice."

But some of us just make it too easy for them.

Separately, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander chastises the paper for excessive use of anonymity:

"Last month, a story about conflicts between parents and childless adults began with an anecdote about an unleashed puppy pestering a toddler in a District park. After the child's father complained, the dog's owner told The Post that parents of children can be 'tyrants' and she urged them to keep their kids inside the park's fenced-in play area. 'I think children are fine,' she was quoted as saying, but 'I don't think they own everything.'

"For this, The Post identified the woman only as Linda, a veteran journalist, 'because she didn't want to be seen as hostile to children.'. . . .

"Too often it seems The Post grants anonymity at the drop of a hat. In a recent politics story, a Democratic strategist was afforded anonymity so he could be 'candid.' In April, a source was granted anonymity for an inoffensive quote 'because he is reluctant to have his name in the paper.'

"Late last year, a Post story on then-White House social secretary Desir?e Rogers quoted a friend who was granted anonymity 'in order not to offend.' Another source in the story was given anonymity 'so as not to upset' Rogers."

Well, I'm upset. But nothing is going to change until news organizations pay a price for this sort of thing.

Video confrontation

I felt an initial twinge of sympathy for Rep. Bob Etheridge in the wake of the viral video that has forced him to apologize.

The North Carolina Democrat is walking down the street when a couple of young men, one armed with a video camera, start asking him questions and refuse to say who they are or where they're from.

But Etheridge completely and totally overreacts, grabbing one man's arm and then the back of his neck, all while the camera is rolling. It looked absolutely awful, as he now recognizes:

"I have seen the video posted on several blogs. I deeply and profoundly regret my reaction and I apologize to all involved. . . . No matter how intrusive and partisan our politics can become, this does not justify a poor response."

Andrew Breitbart's Big Government site -- famous for the ACORN sting -- was the first to post the video, while concluding that "this guy is a moron" who violated assault laws.

But one weird thing remains: How come the "students" involved haven't surfaced and identified themselves? Was Breitbart's operation involved? Not that that would let Etheridge off the hook, but it'd be fascinating to know who targeted him.

The Greene riddle

It's still a head-scratcher in South Carolina.

As National Review's Jim Geraghty asks, "How the heck did Alvin Greene, an unemployed veteran who lives with his parents and who had no discernable campaign activity, not only win the South Carolina Democratic Senate primary, but win by a wide margin?

"So unexpected is this result that official Washington is shaking off its stunned shock and throwing a mild tantrum. . . .

"Does anyone actually want to stake his reputation on an accusation of a vast conspiracy to commit ballot fraud, for the sole purpose of getting Alvin Greene instead of Vic Rawl on the ballot against Jim DeMint?. . . .

"Greene's fairy-tale mystery victory is one of the most joyfully refreshing developments in modern politics, because it subversively suggests that everything we think we know about campaigns, elections, and democracy itself might be completely wrong. The voters may ignore almost everything we have been conditioned to consider important metrics in modern campaigning. Greene managed a runaway victory without television or radio advertising, a website, voter contact lists, any identified campaign staff, any yard signs, any bumper stickers, any get-out-the-vote operations -- hell, as far as anyone can tell, Greene has no discernable positions or platform!"

And he's terrible at giving interviews, too. Meanwhile, Fox's Shep Smith interviews Camille McCoy, a 19-year-old South Carolina student who, according to charges, was approached by Greene in a school library. Smith asks her to explain what Greene showed her "without skeeving us out."

"It was woman-on-man porn," she says. "I told him it was offensive and he needed to leave. He laughed, and he said, Let's go to your room right now. . . . I was shocked and freaked out and scared."

In the state's other big race, the NYT runs a generally favorable profile of Nikki Haley, noting that her given name is Nimrata Nikki Randhawa and that she and her husband were married in two ceremonies, one Methodist and one Sikh. She is now an avowed Christian and none of that seems to matter in the race.

Push comes to shove

The NYT discovers that Meg Whitman may have been a little too hands-on as a chief executive:

"In June 2007, an eBay employee claimed that Ms. Whitman became angry and forcefully pushed her in an executive conference room at eBay's headquarters, according to multiple former eBay employees with knowledge of the incident. . . .

"The employee, Young Mi Kim, was preparing Ms. Whitman for a news media interview that day. . . . Two of the former employees said the company paid a six-figure financial settlement to Ms. Kim, which one of them characterized as 'around $200,000.' "

That, by the way, strikes me as an appropriate use of unnamed sources.

Watered-down tea

Republican candidates often run to the right in primaries and tack to the center in the general; Democrats do the opposite. But are tea partyers now watering down their strong brand? Huffington Post's Sam Stein finds some examples:

"The moderation of the Tea Party seems to have begun, as a number of the movement's high-profile candidates transition from primary battles to general election campaigns.

"On Monday morning, Nevada Republican Senate candidate Shar[r]on Angle told 'Fox and Friends' that, contrary to popular belief, she does not in fact want Social Security to be privatized. '[T]hat's nonsense,' said Angle. . . .

"Angle, as pointed out by Jon Ralston, the dean of the Nevada political press corps, has been fairly unapologetic in the past about her desire to see Social Security privatized. At one point, she said the program itself is 'hard to justify.' That she's now tempering that position illustrates the clear sense among the national Republican establishment that she needs to moderate her platform if she stands a chance of beating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the fall."

As for Rand Paul, he "has toned down earlier remarks saying that the government was being too rough on BP in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf, telling a local Kentucky radio station that the federal regulations in place 'apparently wasn't enough.' "

Harry Reid just aired his first attack ad, with scary music and an ominous-sounding female narrator saying, "Shockingly, Sharron Angle wants to wipe out Social Security."

President and the press

President Obama started his two-day swing through the Gulf on Monday, and he delivers his big Oval Office speech Tuesday night. At the Nation, Ari Melber offers some advice to a chief executive who regularly complains about television's role in the 24/7 news cycle:

"Obama has not only chosen to empower TV-driven news coverage of his administration, he has done so at the cost of access for print and alternative media. The White House arranges far more TV interviews for the president than print interviews. (The line about performing for cable shows came during an interview with the 'Today Show.') The decrease in official press conferences further limits access for print reporters, since it is the only venue for many print reporters to ever have a shot at questioning the president. And during one of the few press conferences that Obama has held as president, he made the highly unusual choice of refusing to take a single question from the four national newspapers (The Times, Journal, Washington Post and USA Today.). . . .

"Obama is rightly annoyed by the made-for-TV quality of oil spill criticism -- the main character needs to show more anger in this scene -- but instead of complaining on TV about TV, he should try changing the channel. He could hold more press conferences, and invite not only White House reporters, but also environmental experts for a deeper exchange on the crisis."

Sure, but I've also read plenty of print journalists saying Obama needs to show more emotion in the oil crisis. In fact, when Roger Simon asked how he could connect with people on "emotional levels," the president said: "I want to be absolutely clear that part of leadership always involves being able to capture people's imaginations, their sense of hope, their sense of possibility, being able to move people to do things they didn't think they could do. The irony, of course, is, is that the rap on me before I got to office was that that's all I could do -- right?"

Meanwhile, internal BP e-mails continue to reveal the company's cost-cutting measures on the ill-fated well, such as this engineer's note shortly before the explosion: "This has been nightmare well which has everyone all over the place."

Reality bites

This just turned my stomach, when you stop to think that a 16-year-old girl's life was at stake:

"The father of teen sailor Abby Sunderland told the New York Post that he's broke and had signed a contract to do a reality show, "Adventures in Sunderland," about his family of daredevil kids weeks after she set off on her doomed and dangerous solo sail around the globe.

"Laurence Sunderland, a sailing instructor who lives in the middle-class Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks with his pregnant wife and seven kids, opened their home to film crews four months ago."

Is there anything people won't do to get on television? And unlike the Balloon Boy hoax, young Abby actually attempted to sail around the world.

Meet the men

The Sunday talk shows -- although one is hosted by a woman and a second is about to be -- remain heavily male when it comes to the guest lineups.

"Even as women have vaulted to be House speaker and hold a host of other influential positions on Capitol Hill, female lawmakers continue to be under-represented as guests on the Sunday shows," Politico reports.

"According to research by American University's Women & Politics Institute, female lawmakers have composed 13.5 percent of the total Sunday show appearances by all representatives and senators this year.

"The suggestion that the Sunday shows are less hospitable to women has prompted a debate over who's to blame among network producers, Capitol Hill political operatives and women's advocates."

Here's what's interesting: Producers say some female members of Congress, led by Nancy Pelosi, make themselves difficult to book or are busy on weekends, adding to the imbalance.

Today's Tiger

Is this report in Britain's Sun true? Who knows?

"Troubled Tiger Woods fathered a secret love child, a new TV documentary claims this week.

"A journalist who helped the golfer hide affairs says he knows someone who has full details of the girl -- and DNA evidence."

Tiger is troubled in more ways than one: He needs to work on his swing after failing to make the cut in his last tournament.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."