Stephen Engelberg is the managing editor for enterprise at the Portland Oregonian, which has become well known for its fairly strict limits on the use of anonymous sources. Before going to The Oregonian in 2002, Engelberg was an investigative editor at The New York Times, where he sometimes edited one of the more famous employers of the anonymous source, Judy Miller. CJR’s Russ Baker interviewed Engelberg on the use and abuse of anonymity.
Has the use of unattributed information changed over the course of your career?
I think the pendulum has now swung against it. But it’s hard to measure. I came in covering the CIA — that was my first beat. I actually never used named sources.
Hardly ever. Anyone who talks about classified documents can go to jail. I can honestly tell you I never quoted anyone on the record about a classified piece of information. And I published many classified pieces of information.
Why has the pendulum swung against anonymity, and is this generally a positive development?
We in the industry are under attack as we have never been on issues of credibility. Some of these attacks are warranted. There have been some very well-publicized mistakes and meltdowns of news organizations. But one of the things that critics have fastened onto is the problem of anonymous sources. And to be honest with you, I think it’s overblown. I don’t have a problem with anonymous sources. I think the problem is poor editing, poor reporting, poor standards, incomplete stories, stories that tell only one side. That aggravates people. That is hurting our credibility.
I Nexised the phrase ‘condition of anonymity’ for a recent sixty-day period. For The New York Times, I got 229 hits. For The Oregonian, I got two. What’s The Oregonian’s policy?
We are a paper that is very reluctant to run anonymously sourced material in the news pages. And that’s a good thing. But we should not have that prevent reporters from using anonymously sourced materials to gather information. It’s a big difference. The fact that you’re going to allow someone to go off the record in the course of gathering news may help you get somewhere that you couldn’t otherwise get. You may use what you get anonymously to leverage on-the-record confirmation, acknowledgment, whatever.
Is there any controversy over that?
There is. There are people who think that, somehow, having standards equates with never letting people speak off the record. I’ve heard some younger reporters say: ‘I’m very careful; nobody goes off the record with me.’ And I say that’s not necessarily a good sign. If you’re able to get all the scoops you think you should through that method, great, but I doubt you are.
Let’s talk about the different levels of unnamed sources.
First of all, sources who are not named, whether anonymous or not, affect the direction of every article. You go and get an interview on the record, and a guy gives you a perfect idea for a story, you go out and pursue it, and you execute it to perfection. But then his quote wasn’t quite right, so you use somebody else’s quote. He doesn’t appear in your story. And yet he’s had an extraordinary influence on the direction of the story. That’s one level of anonymity. The second level is somebody who anonymously tells you something — ‘Don’t get me involved with this, but Joe Jones has been phonying up his campaign contribution list, and you should look into Joe Jones.’ If you then go look at him and find five named sources, but you never name the source who sent you, that is also a form of anonymity. And I think that happens all the time.
Okay. Let’s talk about the classic anonymous sourcing, where we quote or paraphrase an unidentified but clearly present source. What’s okay and what isn’t?
There are orders of magnitude. The New York Times for years said they did not allow anonymous pejorative: ‘A senior administration official says John Smith is a crook.’ That was generally not allowed. But that kind of stuff did start to creep in, pre-Jayson Blair. Even worse, they allowed a lot of anonymous praise: ‘The president is just so decisive, you can’t believe the way he handled himself in that crisis.’ In a funny way, that’s as pernicious for the reader as the anonymous pejorative.
So what material, appropriately, should we be attributing to unidentified sources?
Things that are factual: How many troops have been sent to New Orleans? Did the president sign the emergency order on Monday or on Tuesday? You could use that, absolutely. It’s not opinion. If you had a document, you could find out if it’s true.
Let’s say you have a source telling you, not for attribution, a negative story about a powerful person. You believe it to be true, because it is consistent with what you already know and with the direction the facts are headed, and because you have found the source reliable in the past. Can you use that?
Now you go and confront the named person, and say, ‘This is what I’ve heard, and I want you to respond on record.’ And if that person says to you, ‘That is complete bullshit, this did not happen,’ I would be very reluctant to use an unnamed accuser against a named individual.
Compare your experiences as an investigative editor at the Times, which has been relatively free with granting anonymity, with your experience at The Oregonian, which has not.
They’re not analogous. The work we do here is investigative work that does not involve national security, that does not involve exposing classified information to public view. Also, we have in Oregon a very favorable public records law, and are able to obtain access to original documents.
I wonder if in fact The Oregonian were going after the same stories as the Times, if it were on the same playing field, might it not then be just like the Times?
Well, one of two things would happen. We would either find ourselves loosening our rules, or we would find ourselves ceding stories to the competition. I do not believe under our sort of basic guidelines that The Oregonian would have a very easy time with national security stories. In fact, there have been times where we have used anonymous sources, especially on some terrorism cases, because we decided the value of the information outweighed our extreme reluctance to use sources that way.
When your reporters have anonymous sources, do you ask them who they are?
And they tell you?
Yes, they do. That was a change for me. At the Times, before Jayson Blair, no one ever routinely asked that question. When I was running national security stories, I certainly did not routinely ask that question. I often asked about what kind of person was providing the information. How do they know this? What’s their access? On a routine story, I don’t think an editor at The New York Times would be particularly curious as to which State Department official was talking. I think now they’re more curious.
Speaking of which, you were Judith Miller’s editor for a while, including when she was working on pre-9/11 terrorism stories. What do we learn about the strengths and weaknesses of anonymous sourcing from her work?
From the pre-9/11 stuff she did on Al Qaeda, you certainly could see that she was tapping into people in the government who felt that not enough was being done. I had a fair idea who they were, and a fair idea of why they felt the way they felt. They had specific reasons that motivated them to talk to us. That’s an example where anonymous sourcing can be useful.
And her post-9/11 and Iraq WMD reporting?
I was not on deck for most of the controversial stories. There is one I edited, where we had a named source, the famous defector story in the fall of 2001. [Miller was introduced by Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi exile group to a man who claimed to have personally worked on renovations of secret WMD facilities. The claims proved false.] But there the problem wasn’t anonymity. Named sources lie, too, believe me.
What are some great stories that you were able to do without granting anonymity?
Two years ago, we did an investigation of a child death on an Indian reservation here. That is an extraordinarily difficult reporting environment. That is a culture where people do not talk about death, where it’s sacrilegious to say the name of people who have died. Nonetheless my reporters put in literally months and months building relationships out there, and people went on the record. People were so upset at the rate of childhood deaths that they were willing to talk to this white newspaper about the most intimate tribal details. We could have done that story more quickly if we’d been willing to use anonymous sources. It took a long time to get people on the record. So there’s an investment of time, which is money in this business, in a time of diminishing resources. Every year it’s going to get harder to do. But we did it.
Then there was the Pulitzer finalist series and follow-up stories on the government’s losing battle against the growing illicit use of methamphetamines.
That’s a perfect example. Our work there has been very much driven by our own analysis. We did not use one anonymous source — we killed ourselves, I mean killed ourselves, to build our own model of what we believed was the total Mexican domestic consumption of pseudoephedrine [which is used to make both cold medicine and meth] was in Mexico. Rather than rely on an anonymous source and calling it a day, we went and bought market research data from an international company, and when that wasn’t sufficient, we started calling all the supermarket chains and major pharmaceutical companies in Mexico, and, shockingly, one of them gave us their figures for pseudoephedrine sales in all their stores. It always takes longer if you do it that way.
One of the two stories with anonymous sources that The Oregonian ran recently was also about methamphetamine. It quoted an unidentified State Department official. Did you okay that?
Yes, I did. It was a kind of classic Washington thing. The source was acknowledging a very significant thing, but was not going to go on the record. My first desire was that we would get the spokesman to say it, but he gave a vanilla response. So I felt that we would be depriving our readers of what the State Department really thought. I kind of held my nose; I wasn’t real happy about it, but I did approve that one.
Overall, though, you see anonymity as a necessary journalistic tool.
I think that if you go back to the modern history of journalism, through Watergate, Sy Hersh’s work, and fifty other things you or I could name, without the anonymous source, we’re in deep trouble.
Russ Baker is a contributing editor to CJR.(Columbia Journalism Review)