Another foul nest of anonymice in a Times story

The New York Times parked a travesty of a story on its Web site today reporting that “the Iranians moved roughly 4,300 pounds of low-enriched uranium out of deep underground storage” to a small, above-ground plant, leaving it vulnerable to attack, sabotage or some other suitable, destructive fate. Interesting, but …

The story has no analysis or commentary tag, so presumably it’s a news story. It carries the byline of David E. Sanger, who has written for The Times for more than a quarter of a century and serves as the paper’s chief Washington, D.C., correspondent. He’s a foreign policy and nuclear deproliferation expert, which I am not. He’s a member of two Pulitzer-winning teams at The Times, an exceptional historian, and a damn good writer. But that doesn’t leave him immune from criticism.

It’s irritating that this piece carries only one — that’s one — named source. He expects his readers to swallow a steady diet of anonymice. Worse, Sanger provides no reason for withholding their names. That’s a disservice to readers, who have no way of assessing those grants of anonymity. And Times reporters do this frustratingly, irritatingly often.

Sanger’s story provides no sources at all until the sixth graf. There, the readers are asked to digest this:

As one senior adviser to Mr. Obama said late last year, “We’ve got a near-perfect record of being wrong about these guys for 30 years.”

Why was this “senior adviser” granted anonymity? If Sanger’s answer is “well, he would not have talked to me without it,” then don’t use the adviser’s quote. For heaven’s sake, Sanger works for The frickin’ New York Times —stand up to these anonymice. Hold them accountable.

Yes, I know: Sanger would risk “losing access.” But why should readers not conclude that Sanger is merely a tool of unnamed sources? Consider these other passages from Sanger’s story:

“There’s no technical explanation, so there has to be some other motivation,” one senior administration official who studies the Iranian strategy said after a White House briefing last week following the atomic agency’s revelation.

As one senior European diplomat noted Thursday, an Israeli military strike might be the “best thing” for Iran’s leadership because it would bring Iranians together against a national enemy.

Or, as one American intelligence official said, “You can’t dismiss the possibility that this is a screw-up.”

No reason is provided for granting anonymity to any of these so-called sources. And what is the worth of the information for which Sanger traded anonymity? Watergate this isn’t.

But here’s the kicker — the shirt-tail tag at the end of the story:

Michael Slackman contributed reporting from Cairo and Amman, Jordan; Robert F. Worth from Beirut, Lebanon; and Mark Landler from Washington.

A team worked on this story. And that much journalistic horsepower could arouse only one fully identified source? And that one, Kenneth Pollack, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, doesn’t really count. Think-tank folks get in a lather if they’re not fully identified.

Readers deserve better from The Times. Its reporters should stand up to government officials who refuse to be accountable for their words.Taxpayers fund their salaries. Give taxpayers clear evidence whether those officials are worth the price.

7 replies »

  1. As I was reading this, all I could think about was the Colin Powell Dog & Ponies of Mass Destruction show at the UN. I see something like this and I think about Judith Miller, Dick Cheney’s transcriptionist, and how in recent years the Times has acted less like a newspaper and more like an arm of the KGB.

    I’m not so far gone that I think it’s all become a great big conspiracy, but their cred just keeps on eroding, doesn’t it?

  2. Do you want the report of conscientious whistleblowers Or NOT? For they will Surely SUFFER without anonymity (and yes, there are more than a few moles using it fraudulently; but maybe even they’ll be whistleblown-back!).

  3. Vic: When did “senior administration officials” become “conscientious whistleblowers”? My complaint has nothing to do with whistleblowers. It has to do with the fact that writers for The Times do not explain why anonymity is granted, and that’s in direct contravention of The Times’ own policy. You did read that policy, didn’t you?

  4. I can live with anonymous sources PROVIDED that the information they offer is verifiable. One would think that Iranian-friendly Russian and French and Chinese sources might have something on this if it is a true story. Is anyone looking, or are we going to allow the NYT to pull another Judith Miller out of its cocked hat?