The Washington Post Column

The Value of Anonymity

Just a few days ago I spoke to a top government official who prefers to remain anonymous. It wasn’t the first time: We’ve met only once or twice, but whenever I have a question pertaining to this official’s area of expertise, I don’t hesitate to ask his opinion.

But he doesn’t want to be quoted, this top government official, because he works for an even more important person who wouldn’t want his subordinate’s name appearing in print, particularly when his subordinate’s opinion runs contrary to his own. Nevertheless, I’d much rather talk to my anonymous source off the record than speak to his more important boss with tape recorders running. The latter would be harder to reach, probably less well-informed, and certainly more platitudinous. By contrast, my anonymous source will pick up the phone himself and tell me his version of events in great detail.

I’m fortunate, since my form of journalism — editorializing and columnizing — doesn’t always require me to quote people, and I don’t think that the words of this particular source have ever been featured in print. Nevertheless, thanks to Valerie Plame, a woman whose significance to national security has still never been fully explained, I’ve had many occasions to ponder my relationship with him in recent months. After all, letters quoted by The Post’s ombudsman in recent days have included complaints that Post reporters involved in the Plame story seem to be “literally or figuratively in bed with their subjects,” or that they deliberately go easy on sources. One letter writer thundered, “The sad fact is that Bob Woodward, and by extension The Washington Post, has an enormous vested interest in maintaining cozy relationships with the White House.”

Personally, I can testify that whenever I call the White House, I’m invariably put through to the fourth assistant deputy undersecretary for press relations, who doesn’t know whether the president has an immigration policy or not — and if she did know, she wouldn’t tell me. But I’m not sure that my distinctly uncozy relationship with the White House is a good thing, either for the government or for the reading public. If I had an anonymous source, say, someone who thinks about immigration or some other issue on behalf of the White House, and who would actually be prepared to talk about it off the record, I might be able to make a more accurate assessment, positive or negative, of what the president’s policy might be.

I am not saying anything new about the murky Plame case here (as if that were possible) nor am I defending Bob Woodward, whom I’ve met perhaps three times, and whose relationship with The Post both eclipses and predates my own by several decades. Nor is it my intention to defend or attack Judy Miller, whom I’ve never met at all. But I do think it’s time someone stood up and said something in favor of government officials who speak off the record with journalists, and of the journalists who bother to listen. After all, most public policy journalism doesn’t involve CIA leaks or undercover agents. Most of it involves explaining and investigating the government’s role in health care, economics, the environment, education, foreign policy and trade. If there is no casual, ordinary contact between journalists and government officials, and no level of trust, then the quality of the information available to the public about these issues will be extremely poor.

There is, of course, a balance to be struck: No, one doesn’t want to get in bed, literally or figuratively, with one’s sources. Yes, the world needs cynical journalists, aggressive journalists and friendless journalists, as well as journalists about whom ex-presidents write obituaries (as the late Hugh Sidey inspired former president Gerald Ford to do last week). As the story of Deep Throat itself illustrated, many of those who leak highly confidential information to journalists have deeply mixed motives. The very best journalists try to understand those motives and make sure they listen to other points of view as well.

Some of us will get the balance wrong — there are bad and corrupt journalists, just as there are bad and corrupt members of any other profession — and some of us will make mistakes. But the alternative to a relatively open, relatively comfortable relationship between the press and the government isn’t exactly attractive. Earlier this week the owner of a Jordanian newspaper visited The Post. He described his efforts to open up the press in his country, to ease laws that restrict what topics the press is allowed to address, and to create a newspaper independent of government financing and influence. But ultimately, he said, the legal system wasn’t his worst problem. Far more troubling was the fact that Jordanian government officials “feel no obligation” to say anything to the press, on or off the record, at all. In Jordan, there are no anonymous sources with whom members of the press are entangled, no lower-level officials who can help shed light on events — and as a result, it’s hard for the press to be relevant to politics. Is that really the system we’d like to adopt in this country, too?