Geneva Overholser

Geneva Overholser holds an endowed chair in the Missouri School of Journalism's Washington bureau. She is a former editor of the Des Moines Register, ombudsman of the Washington Post and editorial board member of the New York Times.

Action Steps: Ensuring that Journalism in the Public Interest Survives

In a related article on Poynter Online, Geneva Overholser proposes: “To all who anguish about the prospects for journalism, here is an
invitation: Let us turn our energy toward possibility.” The following is an excerpt from her report for the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

I. Corporate realities:

Enable corporate managers to focus on longer-term goals:

  • elect board members for longer terms
  • change incentives for investors
  • impose punitive taxes on short-term stock trading
  • provide tax forgiveness on long-term holding

Bring a greater sense of responsibility to corporate
governance of media companies:

  • appoint directors with journalism experience
  • assign responsibility to board members to monitor
    editorial performance
  • tie incentive compensation for corporate officers to
    journalistic quality
  • discontinue stock options for newsroom staff and outside

Enable shareholders to exert pressure for corporate

  • bring concept of socially responsible investing to media

Conduct research showing links between good journalism and
good business:

  • make corporate officers aware of findings

Consider units within media companies dedicated to
public-interest journalism:

  • sheltered from normal profit pressures
  • portion of online revenues devoted to this purpose

Establish partnership for quality journalism:

  • supported by funds from media companies
  • supported by foundations, nonprofits

Take public companies private:

  • interest local citizens in these still highly profitable
    media enterprises
  • get nonprofits involved

II. Not-for-profit media

Establish “Marshall Plan” by foundations and

  • increase support for non-profit media organizations
  • foster new nonprofit media models

III. Journalists’ responsibilities

A. Objectivity

  • replace with process of

B. Accountability

  • strengthen through
  • create networks to enhance
  • enhance transparency through
    use of e-mails, editors’ columns, etc.
  • media outlets conduct annual
    self-audits and make results public

C. Professionalization

  • institutionalize
  • news organizations collaborate
    to support standards for journalists
  • establish independent council to
    track, promote, define independent news function in U.S.
  • emulate national board for
    teacher certification to provide credential
  • work to ensure that journalism
    graduate degrees achieve cachet of MBA

IV. Speaking out for journalism

  • journalists should
    assume a responsibility for speaking out on behalf of viable and independent
    media as individuals and through organizations
  • focus on freedom of information
    not as media privilege but as public right
  • produce radio/television shows
    whose segments focus on reporting
  • consider
    advertising/public-relations campaigns on behalf of journalism
  • journalism educators join forces
    to speak out for journalism
  • gather leaders of journalism
    organizations, foundations, universities and other institutions to form a
    coalition in support of public service journalism and freedom of the press

V. The role of government

  • pass tax legislation to enable
    news companies to be organized as nonprofit, tax-exempt corporations
  • devote funds to be gained from
    government auction of publicly owned telecommunications spectrum to the
    provision of educational material in digital media
  • provide tax breaks for ethnic
    media and other under-heard voices
  • consider governmentally
    sponsored search engine

VI. The role of the public

  • pressure
    colleges to require civics education
  • push
    for more courses in news literacy, first amendment
  • support
    news media in schools
  • expand
    Sunshine Week activities, move from annual to greater frequency
  • create
    and distribute field guides for news consumers

VII. New forms of media

  • encourage
    entrepreneurialism among journalists
  • train
    traditional journalists in new delivery platforms
  • train new
    media practitioners in old media principles
  • provide
    tutorials for citizens in gathering and shaping news
  • create wire
    service of ethnic media to strengthen disparate voices
Read more

Wake Up, Newsies: Stop Fretting and Start Building

To all who anguish about the prospects for journalism, here is an
invitation: Let us turn our energy toward possibility. There are many
opportunities to help ensure the survival of good journalism — various
steps that could be taken by different individuals and organizations.
But focusing on those possibilities requires a change of perspective.

one thing, it is difficult to embrace new prospects while clinging to
the past by our fingernails — however natural a reaction that has been
to the fearsome developments of late. To champion journalism
effectively, we will have to distinguish between our traditions and our
principles. We have wonderful memories of all the things that once
were, but few of them are essential to democracy. We must concentrate
on those that are. If we spill our passion on keeping ads off the front
page, will we have enough fight left in us to champion investigative

In these days of
fast-paced change, we will have to give up on looking at things as
simply as we have in the past.
Similarly, we must open our
minds to the possibility that some activities we have held ourselves
resolutely above may now in fact be required of us. Our journalism must
speak for itself, we have said. But nowadays the sound of journalism is
easily lost amid the din of the many who scorn, misportray and revile
it. Who, if not we, will make journalism’s case? We must be prepared,
too, to work together with people whom we have always kept at an
“appropriate” distance. (A local citizens’ group is worried about media
ownership? That’s their business, not ours. Or is it?)

And we
will most assuredly have to get it through our heads (and hearts) just
how exciting and full of possibility for journalism’s future are
today’s new venues — all those new digital platforms that so many have
simply wished would go away. What could be worse than having journalism
on iPods?  How about NOT having it there? Take a cruise through
some of the Web sites that, say, give ethnic news a well-deserved wider
hearing. Or that enable people to search crime news by type, time and
location. Or that pay the sort of loving attention to what’s going on
in a particular neighborhood that only an old-fashioned weekly once
knew how to do. How wondrously they put us to shame, all of us with our
endless reasons why we can’t possibly fit something in our newspaper or

In these days of fast-paced change,
we will have to give up on looking at things as simply as we have in
the past. Take media ownership, which is fast becoming a much more
complex picture. Nonprofits are an increasingly key source of
everything from international investigative reporting to local-local
news. And consider this: Given the way newspapers are changing hands,
perhaps former editors and publishers should offer their services as a
kind of traveling think tank to some of these folks who’ve suddenly
ended up as local newspaper owners. Meanwhile, should public policy be
shaped so as to make it easier to take publicly held companies private?

bountiful opportunities to affect the future of journalism are
available to people in all kinds of different positions. Board members
could demand that the health of their companies’ journalism be audited
as avidly as its fiscal health — and that their executives be rewarded
as richly for the one as for the other. Shareholders could band
together to exert pressure for corporate responsibility among media
companies, much as they have pressed for corporate environmental

have to open our minds to new possibilities, take risks, experiment and
engage one another (and lots of others) in lively discussions about new
and unsettling prospects.
representatives could pass tax legislation to make it easier for news
companies to be organized as nonprofit, tax-exempt corporations.
Colleges could make civics and news literacy classes part of their
entrance requirements. The journalism academy could turn its massive
research capability toward questions of practical import for
journalists: How can the concept of objectivity best be formulated to
serve journalism today? How can journalism’s enduring values be
translated even more richly online? Journalism organizations could
recognize excellence in ways that strengthen the craft: Master copy
editors, say, anointed by the American Copy Editors Society,
would have responsibilities to nurture the craft back in their
newsrooms. The opportunities go on and on. Some are easy to ponder,
others immediately discomforting: Should the government provide tax
breaks for under-heard voices? Should an independent council be
established to track, promote and define the news function in the
United States?

But here is something truly
unsettling: the prospect of a journalism hollowed out by corporate
dictates, undermined by rants gone unanswered and swamped in a sea of
“media outlets” meeting every need but democracy’s.

To ward that
off, we’ll have to move past a lot of givens. We’ll have to figure out
what is really essential, and prepare to jettison what isn’t. We’ll
have to open our minds to new possibilities, take risks, experiment and
engage one another (and lots of others) in lively discussions about new
and unsettling prospects. We’ll have to take responsibility for our
future — and for the future of this craft we love.

We can save journalism — if we open ourselves to the possibilities. Read more


Time to Name the Accuser

This column was filed Sept. 9, but publication was delayed as a result of review and discussion by editors and the travel schedule of the author. 

(Name withheld by editors) is taking her case against Kobe Bryant out of the criminal court and into civil court in Colorado, and it is time her name became standard media usage – instead of being reserved for radio shockjocks, Internet hitmen, Kobe Bryant’s attorney (who “mistakenly” used her name repeatedly in court) or the documents (with her name and address) that the court accidentally put online.

As I wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “Her voluntary step further into the public limelight makes appropriate a unified move by editors to cease the conceit of this naming taboo. Thus freed from a debate of little meaning, journalists could move on to discuss a terribly meaningful one: how to cover rape trials with sensitivity, balance, fairness, a concentration on fact over rumor.”


The name of the accuser in this case has been removed by Poynter Online editors. After doing a first read on the column, editors Julie Moos and Bill Mitchell met with a group of about 25 Poynter faculty and staff to discuss the issue: Under what circumstances should Poynter consider naming the accuser in this case? 

The discussion was not to seek consensus, but to inform our decision. Our conclusion: Based on what we know at this point, we believe the journalistic purpose to be achieved by naming the accuser is outweighed by the potential harm that could result from doing so. We gladly present conflicting views, as we did with this column by Geneva that was published last year. But we are not willing to step beyond publishing opinion and take the action of publishing the accuser’s name.

This has created an unusual dilemma. Geneva is a valued friend of Poynter, a member of our National Advisory Board from 1993 to 2001 as well as the unpaid author of the weekly Journalism Junction column since November 2002. Citing several competing obligations as well as her principled disagreement with Poynter Online editors, Geneva has informed us that this will be her final column for Poynter. Explaining her decision, she said: “There is little to recommend continuing to write the column for Poynter unless I can say what I believe.” 

 – Bill Mitchell Read more


Calling Fox Names — Anonymously

My thanks to a colleague at Poynter, Larry Larsen, for pointing out another in a long line of stories at the Washington Post showing forgetfulness about the paper’s supposedly-tightened anonymity policies.

From the paper come these quotes:

“Fox News Channel doing a big number at the RNC is the least shocking thing that’s happened all week,” said one broadcast network exec. “The Olympics are to NBC what the RNC is to Fox News.”

“It says that Fox News Channel is the official channel of the GOP, and if people didn’t know it before they certainly know it now,” offered another competitor.

Still another said FNC’s success Tuesday night suggests the cable news network is the “in-house organ” of the Republican Party.

And from the Stylebook comes this one

The Washington Post‘s Policies on Sources, Quotations, Attribution, and Datelines
We should not publish ad hominem quotations from unnamed sources. Sources who want to take a shot at someone in our columns should do so in their own names.
Read more


News With a View

I curtsy to no man in recognizing that media today are becoming more openly ideological. But acknowledging a point of view in newer entrants shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the “old media” are far from the model of open-mindedness they seem to feel they are.

And I don’t mean just the fact that coverage on such subjects as gun control or abortion often is knee-jerkishly liberal. Or the fact that, in over-reaction to those very “liberal media” charges, the occasional abortion-rights march — to take an example — is seriously UNDERplayed.

That little herky-jerky dance is lamentable. But I’m talking about a deeper and broader truth: The establishment media are so terminally ESTABLISHMENT. And they don’t seem to get how much of a bias that is.


This thought struck recently as I read “The Ascendancy of News with a View” in Newsday. The gist of it is that folks like George Stephanopoulos and Ted Koppel are alarmed to find that some Americans are looking to sources other than the likes of ABC to get an idea of what’s really going on. I mean, sources like “Fahrenheit 9/11″ or Rush Limbaugh.

These misguided news consumers, Stephanopoulos tells us, “very sincerely, very earnestly” believe that they’re getting actual factual information from such sources. Koppel, sharing George’s alarm at this notion, says he is “concerned that on both sides of the political spectrum, that if what Americans feel they have to get is news with an attitude, what they’re going to end up losing is some of the objectivity that traditionally people in our business have tried [to attain] at least. We don’t always succeed, but we have tried.”


I have sympathy for this view. I’m worried too about Americans more and more wanting to hear only from those who agree with them. But I am powerfully struck that it doesn’t occur to George and Ted –- and all the other sources in the article — that traditional media also have a viewpoint.

Traditional media have a viewpoint. It’s a good old conventional, “acceptable,” middle-of-the-road viewpoint. It’s the viewpoint, generally speaking, of the powerful — which is by and large, even today, the view of well-to-do male white folks. Like Ted and George. (Forgive me for noting that everybody in Newsday‘s long and citation-rich piece seems to belong to this privileged group.)


Would anyone who has ever been part of a movement for change –- civil rights, feminism, anti-war, you name it -– believe that the mainstream media offer so full and rich and open-minded and comprehensive a menu that no one need go elsewhere for an accurate picture of what’s going on?

What has the recent spate of mea culpas in The New York Times ($$), The Washington Post, and the Lexington Herald-Leader shown us, ultimately, if not that these media were in thrall to the reigning conventional wisdom?


When we old-media types come up with our high-sounding prescriptions for the proper media diet for the responsible American citizen, we could stand a reminder that people aren’t fools to think that there’s truth to be sought outside conventional media. The narrower the conventional media -– and we do go through our cycles — the more info there is to be found elsewhere. Thus, in this post 9/11 world, have documentaries set records, and political books flown off the shelves. Some of these partisan upstarts have a thing or two to say. The people are listening. Are we?




Two other quick notes. One of the most interesting things happening in media criticism is the Bay Area’s “Grade the News.” Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle did an interesting interview with the site’s leader, John McManus, which features some delicious straight talk about journalism.   

Finally, an immodest plug for a recent radio show with a terrific discussion of the reporters’ privilege issue. I took part but, more important, so did Floyd Abrams, Lucy Dalglish, Dan Okrent, and Vanessa Leggett. Check it out at WBUR’s “The Connection.” Read more


A Revolution in Journalism Accountability

I have a clipping in my files dated January 13, 2003. It’s from a British newspaper, the Guardian. Here’s the headline: “With war looming, it is no good the American public looking to its newspapers for an independent voice. For the press have now become the president’s men.”

This morning (Thursday), The Washington Post ran a remarkable story on its front page, responding to months of charges like that one in the Guardian: charges that the Post and other media failed the public in covering the buildup to war in Iraq. The story, by media writer Howard Kurtz, says the coverage “in hindsight, looks strikingly one-sided at times.” Last May, The New York Times did its own mea culpa. Its coverage, the story said, “was not as rigorous as it should have been.”

The Post is the major paper in the nation’s capital. Inevitably, as one of its editors said, it is “the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.” Before the war, it performed that role avidly. Fast and furious came the headlines: “Cheney Says Iraqi Strike Is Justified.” “Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat.” “Bush Tells Troops: Prepare for War.”

Kurtz notes some of the reasons for the journalistic march toward war: There was an intense focus on what the administration was doing. The technical details of intelligence and weapons of mass destruction make for tough reporting. When contrary stories DID run, they raised a ruckus. As a media observer, I’d add this: The American press was, generally speaking, exceedingly deferential in the wake of 9/11. And it was not alone. The media in part reflect what is going on around them, and there was precious little political debate going on.

These have been difficult times for our country. But whatever the tenor of the era, whatever the popularity ratings of the president, there are things the press should never forget. Skepticism is a patriotic responsibility of journalists. And the press must give voice not only to those in power but also to those who are NOT being heard. These are the failures that the Post –- and the Times before it –- have now acknowledged.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of these acknowledgments. They signal a revolution in press accountability. Newspapers, like people, have always made mistakes. But they have rarely admitted the big ones. Of course, you can’t help but wish that the light had dawned earlier. Even as I read my Post this morning, I was hearing reports on NPR of intense fighting in Iraq. “You’re too late,” I longed to say to my newspaper. But that would be wrong.

I don’t know if I agree with Post editor Len Downie, who says it’s a mistake to think that different coverage would have led to a different outcome. But I do know this: Accountability on the part of the press is a good and hopeful thing -– and even a brave one. When those in power, including the media, acknowledge their impact and admit their fallibility, we’re all better off.

A slightly different version of this was prepared for commentary on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Read more


Colin McNickle Responds

From: Colin McNickle
Sent: Monday, August 09, 2004 1:33 PM
To: Overholser, Geneva
Subject: Incredible

Ms. Overholser –

I found your recent posting “Omitting Telling Details” both laughable and tragic.

The larger question is my employer, not that I never got an answer to what even The New York Times was forced to admit was a perfectly “reasonable” question?

Furthermore, you, supposedly the paragon of journalistic whatever, link to a Max Blumenthal blog that is so factually bereft that it would be filed under “fiction” in any library.

Just one example is the smear of my days with UPI (as a bureau chief in two cities and as the broadcast editor for Pennsylvania based in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, no less). Sorry to burst all you liberals’ notions, but I didn’t work for the Rev. Moon – I left UPI for the AP in 1991 and well before Mr. Moon bought the wire service.

And you and Mr. Blumenthal -– you by your link, Blumenthal by his writings — show your utter ignorance of economics by finding something nefarious about F.A. Hayek’s writings on free-market economics and the well-proven dangers of socialism. The “linkage” to Alfred Jay Nock -– “he was a hysterical anti-Semite … ” –- is equally ludicrous. What, that makes ME an anti-Semite? That’s like saying anyone who ever quoted Sen. Robert Byrd must be a Klansman.

And, indeed, if you study the economics of Gov. Ed Rendell, they ARE more socialistic than free-market. In fact, it’s a textbook case.

Let’s address the real issue here –- Mrs. Heinz-Kerry said something publicly for which any reporter worth his salt would seek clarification/expansion. What did she mean? We still don’t know. Attempting to kill the questioner won’t get us the answer.

Thank you,

Colin McNickle
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

From: Colin McNickle
Sent: Monday, August 09, 2004 1:50 PM
To: Overholser, Geneva
Subject: Oh, and a post script

Ms. Overholser-

And one more thing –- Blumenthal refers to “Alfred Jay Nock.” It’s “Albert,” actually.

Colin McNickle


Overholser, Geneva
Sent: Monday, August 09, 2004 2:23 PM
To: Colin McNickle
Subject: RE: Incredible

Dear Colin McNickle,

Thanks for your feedback. Feel free to post it publicly (if you haven’t) on the Poynter site.

Meanwhile, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. To me the issue is not whether you asked a logical question (I think you did), but whether Heinz-Kerry would have every reason to be suspicious of and annoyed by an encounter with a reporter who comes from a clearly unfair/imbalanced newspaper that has tormented her in the past.


Geneva Overholser
Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting
Missouri School of Journalism, Washington bureau

From: Colin McNickle
Sent: Monday, August 09, 2004 3:01 PM
To: Overholser, Geneva
Subject: RE: Incredible

Dear Geneva –

Agree to disagree? On some basic facts of the issue that you purposely misrepresent? Geesh.

When’s the last time -– if ever -– that you have actually read a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, news or editorial section, cover to cover? Perhaps you’d like to see a few issues…

And, please post my response; I think you have a responsibility to do so.

Colin. Read more


Omitting the Inconveniently Telling Detail

I came back from vacation raring to gripe about how we in the press conveniently overlook significant details on these catchy little stories we go bonkers over.

Details like the roar of the crowd in the Des Moines ballroom where Howard Dean screamed his immortal Scream. Details like a full characterization of the journalist Teresa Heinz Kerry told to “shove it.” Then, I discovered just how far behind the curve a blissful few days in the West Virginia mountains can leave you. See, for example, this and this.  

Still, I want to add my two bits: When I Googled “Teresa Heinz Kerry” and “shove it,” I saw twice as many references to the episode that do NOT mention Richard Mellon Scaife (who employs the journalist she told to “shove it”) as references that do. This significant omission leaves the news consumer with the impression that the object of her remark was just another journalist — albeit perhaps a conservative one –- as opposed to a journalist from a paper with a long and ugly history with Heinz Kerry and her family.

This omission makes it much easier to write pat little didn’t-we-tell-you-she-was-strange headlines such as “Teresa Heinz Kerry Calls for More Civil Tone in Politics, Then Tells Reporter to ‘Shove It’” or “Show and Tell: Teresa Heinz Kerry’s ‘Shove It’ Outburst Is the Latest in String of Outspoken Behavior.”

It’s also worth noting that these handy little omissions cross party lines. When I Googled “Schwarzenegger” and “girlie girls,” I found almost twice as many references to the remark that did NOT mention the phrase’s “Saturday Night Live” origins compared to those that did cite “SNL.” Read more


Fear and Anxiety in Network Newsrooms

Much that is commonly “understood” among journalists is rarely voiced in public. A pre-convention event this week in Cambridge – where network anchors went on the record about the partisan and corporate pressures they feel – was a bracing exception. The Shorenstein Center program was mostly noted in the news for Jim Lehrer’s chastisement of the big three anchors for their stinted convention coverage. But even rarer was the theme kicked off by Dan Rather at the start: “Fear has increased in every newsroom in America.” The three anchors (Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw) sparred with one another about whether it was “fear,” “caution,” or “anxiety,” but its existence seemed clear.

Rather started by noting this: When you’re a reporter contrasting what someone in the administration says with what you know to be the facts, pointedly laying out the differences, “You’re gonna catch hell.” “And those who are willing to pay the price,” Rather said, are fewer today than before. In a later remark, he said the strong feelings nationwide and the guarantee that they’ll be voiced not only calls up more caution than ever – sometimes a good thing – but causes some to ask: “You know what? We run this story, we’re asking for trouble. Why do it?”

Peter Jennings, having rejected fear, said shortly thereafter, “I think there is anxiety in the newsroom, and I think it comes from the corporate suite.” He hears more from conservative critics than in the past, he said, and “I think it creates concern in the corporate suites. This wave of resentment rushes at our advertisers, it rushes at our corporate suites, and it gets under the newsroom’s skin.”

Then it was Rather’s turn to demur, saying that had “not been (his) experience at CBS News, at least in recent years.” To which Jennings responded: “I can take on anything. But I feel a presence of anger in the air all the time.”

Tom Brokaw soft-pedaled this angle, noting that there had previously been “a kind of tyranny of the left” that only naturally had been succeeded by its opposite. But when the three were pressed by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) about what they would have done differently in the coverage of the run-up to war in Iraq, the original topic revived.

Judy Woodruff cited “voices listened to but not given the prominence of the flood of voices from the administration.” She described a “hyper-patriotic … mood that had taken hold to some degree in the media.”

Rather went further with the specific results: “We did not do our job of pressing and asking enough questions often enough.” He said there is “more reluctance now than 35 to 40 years ago to stand up and look ‘em in the eye and ask the hard questions.” 

Brokaw said he thought “the big failure” was that “we didn’t connect enough dots. We didn’t raise enough questions about the political process.” 

“Where are the hearings in the House? Where are the hearings in the Senate?” he asked.

Lehrer’s only comment on the topic: The fact that views today are “strongly held is terrific for us,” he said, because “viewers will watch with more vigor.”

Woodruff’s thought about the powerful partisan outpourings: “We want to be responsive, but it can never govern what we do.”

As the ensuing debate acknowledged, the country’s political mood, translated through the corporate suites, HAS been affecting what the media was doing. Here’s hoping the welcome level of candor in Cambridge is a signal that this is ceasing to be true. Read more


Anonymous in the Midwest

Paul Wolfowitz is accustomed to requesting –- and receiving –- anonymity when he wants it. But, as the Des Moines Register reported (not, alas, online, though you can read about it in Slate) that doesn’t work everywhere:

Incognito in Omaha

After Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spoke to the Omaha Chamber of Commerce last Friday, he set aside 45 minutes to talk about the Iraq war with a handful of newspaper reporters from Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. As is common in Washington, D.C., a Pentagon aide swooped down just before the questions began and explained that Wolfowitz could only be identified as a “senior Defense Department official.”

But this was Omaha, and the Midwest reporters rebelled at the suggested anonymity. They told Wolfowitz such a session was essentially a waste of their time, and besides, it’s customary for public officials in the Midwest to put their name behind their comments. One reporter explained it would look pretty silly if he wrote a story quoting Wolfowitz speaking publicly to the Omaha Chamber, and then in the next paragraph quoted a “senior Defense Department official.” Everybody in Omaha knew Wolfowitz was the only senior defense official in town on Friday.

Wolfowitz, who recently apologized for negative comments he made about reporters covering Iraq, retreated without hesitation and agreed to speak on the record.

(from the Des Moines Register, July 15, in “Insider: Iowa Ear,” a weekly column of inside-baseball political items)

Interestingly, just after a former Register reporter e-mailed me that story, a friend here in Washington sent me his own thoughts about anonymity. Here’s Jim Rosen, a McClatchy Washington bureau reporter:

Since I got to Washington a decade ago, I’ve been amazed that someone like the national security adviser can hold a detailed briefing with dozens of reporters, and they dutifully cite “a senior administration official” because that’s the instruction they get.

Some reporters — and I’ve probably been guilty of this — might feel it gives their work a certain cache to appear to have special access to high-level officials. Of course, the poor reader never knows that it’s a big pretense and that all those other reporters got the same information in a quasi-public setting. It’s a kind of illicit trade: The administration gets deniability, secrecy, and lack of public accountability in exchange for the reporter receiving a false veneer of exclusivity.

Meanwhile, William Babiskin told me his uncle Al used to joke: “They tell us something was said by ‘someone close to the White House.’ For all we know, it’s a wino in Lafayette Park.”

Finally, a colleague at Poynter, Larry Larsen, wrote to note his concern about the NY Times story on the Cheney-replacement rumor, which was absolutely bristling with anonymity. “So much for this,”  he said, noting The New York Times’ anonymous sources policy. I agree. Maybe inside, in a standard analyis or political memo format, but on the front page? 

The Wilson Affair and the Elusive Truth

A number of my correspondents have noted questions raised in recent government reports about Joe Wilson’s truthfulness. As one of many who wrote about Wilson and his yellowcake uranium report, I’ve gone back at this new information to try to figure out where the facts lie. There’s a lot more heat than light being cast on the subject, but among the more helpful sources I’ve found are Bill Safire’s July 10 column and, in the L.A. Times, a report by Doyle McManus and a piece by Tim Rutten.

There appear to be significant differences between State Department and CIA views, between British and American views and between various readings of the Wilson report, as well as different interpretations as to whether Wilson’s wife “offered up his name” or responded to queries about whether he’d be willing to make his controversial trip. There is plenty here to make those inclined to bristle do so on either side. I can only say that the entirety of it makes me feel less certain of the truth than I was. I thank my readers for challenging me to return to the issue. Read more