To hear Donald Trump’s supporters tell it, the story these days isn’t the story, but how the story is sourced.
Dissecting a recent New Yorker report on Rex Tillerson’s trip to Moscow, for example, The Federalist’s James Kelly noted the many times its authors were able to make partisan points by citing the opinions of “some officials,” “some Democrats,” and various Republican “colleagues.” It was a cutting observation. Kelly’s dispatch should shame any left-leaning reporter who spent the campaign season mocking Donald Trump for leaning on the phrase “many people are saying” to buttress his conspiratorial assertions.
Fox News Channel contributor and Federalist columnist Mollie Hemingway recently averred that the Washington Post has a crippling credulity problem when it comes to anonymous leakers inside the administration. Hemingway cited a report that claimed former FBI Director James Comey had sought more “resources” for the probe into Trump campaign contacts with Russian officials. She knocked it down, citing a Justice Department spokesperson’s denial and acting FBI Director Andrew McAbe’s statement to the contrary, which he delivered under oath. That version of events, rather than the anonymous source’s, seems to have been corroborated by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in a private briefing to House members last week.
But the right’s war on anonymous sourcing has recently crept onto less defensible terrain.
Hemingway observed that the Post reported that Rosenstein “threatened to resign” when the firing of James Comey was laid at his feet. She insisted that this was wrong because it “was contradicted by none other than Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein himself” based on the DAG’s statement to the contrary. There are plenty of reasons why a public official would want to leak the prospect of his or her resignation to the press only to be able to dismiss it later as rumor. One on the record denial hardly suffices for total refutation.
Additionally, Hemingway noted that the supposed revelation that Donald Trump had disclosed sensitive intelligence to ranking Russian operatives during a closed-door meeting was “slapped down” by Trump officials ranging from National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to Deputy NSA Dina Powell. “[I]t’s hard to know if anything else in the Washington Post story was true,” she insisted. But it was true, as the president himself would confess less than 12 hours after McMaster sacrificed his credibility to defend this president from himself. In the days that followed, source after source has provided a clear and damning picture of what went on at that meeting. The White House doesn’t even bother to contradict reporters’ characterizations of that confab anymore.
“When you have a story based on anonymous sources that turns out to not be true, it makes all stories about [or] based on anonymous sources questionable and easy to dismiss,” she recently told reporters with Marketplace.org. That kind of blanket dismissal of all anonymously sourced stories isn’t productive. As Hemingway noted earlier in that interview, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for anonymous sources to come forward, many of which serve the public interest. To rely entirely on named sources to counter anonymous claims is not enlightened skepticism. It’s an excuse not to evaluate each allegation on its individual merits.
Conservatives were understandably less skeptical of anonymous sources in the Obama years. Anonymous administration officials who “asked not to be quoted” described a “heated debate” among Obama’s senior staff over whether or not to seek congressional approval for strikes on Syria. The president later claimed unanimity in his decision to defer to Congress. Fifty anonymous sources confirmed to Nancy Youssef and Shane Harris, both formerly of The Daily Beast, that U.S. Central Command had doctored intelligence on the ISIS threat to more closely resemble Barack Obama’s dismissive take on the terrorist group. When that scandal grew legs, analysts who complained of being forced out as a result of their willingness to blow the whistle spoke to the press anonymously about it.
Unnamed government officials spilled the beans on the Department of Justice’s surveillance of Associated Press journalists, going so far as to reveal the existence of a grand jury empaneled to review the criminality of leaks to reporters. The former administration was so resentful toward whistleblowers that reporters described chafing at the precautions they had to take to avoid being targeted by the Obama Justice Department for prosecution.
The frustrations and inaccuracies that occasionally result from relying on anonymous sources are not new and, during the last administration, were widely evinced by pro-Obama partisans. In a 2013 piece, former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan described readers’ irritation with the paper’s reliance on unnamed sources and prescribed some ways in which the paper could regain the trust of its audience—either with more careful sourcing or more descriptive blurbs about the unnamed sources cited. In recent weeks, a deluge of “bombshells” has rendered news consumers shell-shocked. Sure, some of those bombshells are better sourced than others, but the proliferation of revelatory dispatches has a lot more to do with Donald Trump than the press.
The fact that “the Trump administration is, in fact, leaking like a rusty sieve,” wrote Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle, “is a sign of a president who has, in just four short months, completely lost control over his own hand-picked staff.” As National Review’s Jonah Goldberg observed, the Washington Post’s telling of the dismissal of James Comey cited no fewer than 30 administration officials. If this administration doesn’t tacitly encourage leaks, it is spectacularly inept at preventing them.
It is not uncommon to encounter Trump supporters offhandedly dismissing anonymously sourced stories before having read them or refusing to read them altogether, but that is only a defense mechanism. The onslaught of leaks out of the investigation into the Trump campaign, in meetings with Russian officials, regarding activities at the Department of Justice, involving congressional probes into all of the above–it has all become overwhelming. But anonymous sources are occasionally telling a truth the federal government would rather not acknowledge. Reporting that story is the essence of journalism.
Conservatives are particularly obliged to take what the man from the government tells them with a healthy grain of salt. The difference between dismissing anonymously sourced reports outright and selectively tolerating only stories that are favorable to Trump is fine beyond the point of distinction.