On the news tonight, as part of the breaking story of Deep Throat's identitiy, Tom Brokaw reminded the audience of just how important anonymous sources are to the health of our nation. They are the bulwark against the malfeasance of those in power who would misuse their authority to shut down honest scrutiny of their actions. Every criminal wants a dark street and every crooked politican wants an irresponsible press that will be ignored and mistrusted by the public.
In light of today's news, it might be wise to reconsider the dilemna brought on by Newsweek's very public embarrassment caused by their mishandling of information provided by an anonymous source.
There is a vast difference in the way the Washington Post handled the Watergate scandal. Unlike Newsweek, the Post did not simply take the uncorroborated allegations of one source. Nor did they interpet official silence to be verification of serious charges.
When confronted with Deep Throat's stunning allegations about the President and his administration, the two young Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, did extensive leg work. They examined the corroborating documents that Deep Throat provided and interviewed countless other witnesses; and before the Post ran the story, they had pieced together a coherent and provable tale that was carefully laid out for the public. It was impossible to ignore because of the wealth of corroborated detail. These journalists did their investigative work carefully and precisely.
There were two differences between the 1970s and today. One was that the level of journalistic responsibility was far higher. Reporters took accuracy and objectivity much more seriously than they do today.
The other is that they had serious-minded editors who gave them time to develop a story and to do the necessary fact checking. Today, everybody wants to be first with the story. The pressure to scoop CNN and even the bloggers is enormous. The problem is that there is a vast difference between scooping everybody else with a breaking story of a fire or an accident, which is visible and highly verifiable right on the spot, and trying to scoop everybody with a hastily done and sloppily researched investigative piece.
Competing to scoop the Drudge Report may not be the best use of a newspaper's resources. And too often it leads to the worst kind of errors.
And the real problem is that once a newspaper or news magazine loses its credibility with the public, the politicians will be free to engage in all kinds of dishonest activity with impunity because who will be there to blow the whistle once nobody believes the media and the bloggers anymore?
We cut our own throats when we practice sloppy journalism. But we also kill democracy's greatest safeguard when we do so.