There are a lot of different ways to describe how badly White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has mishandled allegations of domestic abuse against former staff secretary Rob Porter. And there is no shortage of people criticizing Kelly and questioning the veracity of his explanations of why Porter remained employed in the face of such serious accusations and the lack of a security clearance because of them.
But instead of just sticking to the facts, including an FBI timeline directly contradicting the White House accounts, The Washington Post decided to use an anonymous “White House official” to call out the the retired four-star Marine Corps general.
Kelly, the unnamed official said, is “a big fat liar.”
That’s a pithy soundbite to be sure and an irresistible one that was immediately picked up by at least a half-dozen other mainstream media outlets. It also violates the journalistic standards of most major news organizations, including The Washington Post (and NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.)
It does nothing to provide readers with necessary and helpful information and it doesn’t lift the public debate. It only adds to the poisoned political environment.
“We should not publish ad hominem quotations from unnamed sources,” the Post guidelines say. “Sources who want to take a shot at someone in our columns should do so in their own names.” And further along, “We should avoid blind quotations whose only purpose is to add color to a story.”
This looks like a violation.
The applicable definition of ad hominem here is “attacking an opponent’s character rather than answering his argument.” In other words, it’s getting personal rather and resorting to labels and name-calling instead of addressing the issue directly.
Legitimate news organizations prohibit such personal attacks made anonymously because the reader lacks sufficient context and information to judge the speaker’s knowledge, authority and motivation.
“The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage 5th Edition” says “Reporters should not offer a news source anonymity without first pressing to use a name or other helpful identification. If concealment proves necessary, writers should tell readers as much as possible — without violating the promise of confidentiality — to help them assess the source’s credibility. In particular, how does the source know the information? And does he or she have a stake in the issue?”
The Times says reporters also should explain why the source will not speak for attribution. Legitimate reasons could include, “Does she fear for her job or her safety? Does his company forbid workers to speak to reporters? Is the information classified?”
The reason the Post provided for shielding the identity of their unnamed source? It was a White House official, “who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid opinion.”
Granting anonymity to a source who says, “Let me tell you what I really think,” sounds like a service to the truth. But allowing that…