The price of anonymous sources: Error hits LATimes' Clemens claim

The Los Angeles Times blew a story more than a year ago that reported a federal affidavit claimed seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens used steroids. How and why did that happen?

Fourteen months ago, Lance Pugmire and Tim Brown of The Times reported “Roger Clemens, 44, one of professional baseball’s most durable and successful pitchers, is among six players allegedly linked to performance-enhancing drugs by a former teammate. … The names had been blacked out in an affidavit filed in federal court.”

The next day, Kevin Ryan, then the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, said it contained “significant inaccuracies.” Now we know what the inaccuracies were.

Today, Pugmire reported that “[f]ormer major league pitcher Jason Grimsley accused baseball players Jose Canseco, Lenny Dykstra, Glenallen Hill and Geronimo Berroa of using steroids, according to a federal affidavit that was unsealed Thursday.”

More from Pugmire’s Dec. 21 story:

The unsealed affidavit contradicts a story The Times published Oct. 1, 2006. Citing anonymous sources, including a Grimsley confidant and an individual “with authorized access to [the] unredacted affidavit,” The Times’ story said Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Brian Roberts, Jay Gibbons, Miguel Tejada and Segui and strength coach Brian McNamee were named in the document. In fact, Clemens, Pettitte, Gibbons and Roberts were not named. Also, The Times’ report said Grimsley alleged that Tejada used anabolic steroids. The only mention of Tejada in the affidavit was a conversation he had with teammates about baseball’s ban on amphetamines. [emphasis added]

Clemens and former teammate Pettitte had been named earlier this month in the Mitchell Report, baseball’s version of an “Inside Story”-style investigation of performance-enhancing drug use.

Clemens’ lawyer, Rusty Hardin, who’s been doing most of the talking instead of his client, said Dec. 20 of the Times’ error:

When this grossly inaccurate story broke in October 2006, Roger said it was untrue and the Los Angeles Times chose not to believe him. As the record now clearly proves, Roger was telling the truth then, just as he continues to tell the truth today. Roger Clemens did not take steroids, and anybody who says he did had better start looking for a hell of a good lawyer.

Even a judge got in on the beatdown of The Times. U.S. District Court Judge Edward C. Voss, who unsealed the affidavit, said:

The [Times] article trumpets the success … in ending the ‘months of speculation’ surrounding which major league ballplayers Jason Grimsley named. … A review … proves that The Times never saw the unredacted affidavit. … At best, the article is an example of irresponsible reporting. At worst, the ‘facts’ reported were simply manufactured.

Times columnist Bill Plaschke also publicly ‘fessed up that The Times goofed. On today’s “Around The Horn” on ESPN, he said a source The Times had used for a long time got the story wrong. But the story had more than one unnamed source. And the story was still wrong.

Journalists (and would-be “citizen journalists” and bloggers) have to be cautious about the use of “anonymous sources,” “confidants” and “individuals with authorized access” to documents.

Journalists can’t do their jobs without “anonymice.” Providing anonymity to those sources, be they idealistic whistle-blowers or biased cowards with an ax to grind, is essential to uncovering government and corporate malfeasance.

But if a story built almost entirely on anonymous sources is eventually discredited, readers will think twice about the veracity of the next story containing “anonymice.”

Equally vexing to readers are stories in which anonymity is granted — but without explanation of why. Here’s the sourcing graf from the Oct. 1, 2006, Times story:

A source with authorized access to an unredacted affidavit allowed The Times to see it, but retained it to read back what had been blacked out of the public copies. A second source and confidant of Grimsley had previously disclosed player identities and provided additional details about the affidavit. The sources insisted on anonymity.

The sources insisted on anonymity. Okay, but why? And why did The Times grant it?

Anonymous sources shouldn’t be blindly protected by journalists. Tell the readers why those sources are anonymous. That allows us to judge their credibility for ourselves.

Said a Times spokesman: “We regret our report was inaccurate and will run a correction.”

8 replies »

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  2. Too many journalists have become convinced that it’s more important to be first than to be right. And maybe it is – these people still have jobs, right?

  3. Tell the readers why those sources are anonymous.

    Don’t see that done oo often. Maybe partly because it’s like walking a tightrope — the journalist would be leaving clues as to informant’s identity.

    I know steroid use isn’t the point of the article, but still tough for Clemens to deny. See my post following.

  4. Russ,

    It can be done without pointing to the identity of the source. True, some of the circumlocutions leave much to be desired. If the source didn’t want to be identified because she or he might fired, just say so.

    Also: The Times said nothing about the motivations of the sources. Why were they providing information, especially from a court document? Give us the source’s motives.

    Sam, I almost agree. But I know too many who do wish to get it right, and we never hear about them because they DO get it right. But we do hear about the real bonehead mistakes, such as this one.

    I’m curious, though: Remove Clemens’ name from this. Is the apology proffered by The Times no longer running on the front page? That’s what annoys me. If it had just been a player without the celebrity of Clemens, would that apology be parked on Page One?

  5. Thank you, Lenny. You’ll find our staff covers the waterfront culturally, politically, socially and economically.