Sourcing

Another day, another letter to the NYT Public Editor. I refer to:

I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the C.E.O. asked me. I didn’t have an answer. “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” he continued, clearly concerned. “Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”

from this Deal Book column:

http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/10/03/on-wall-street-a-protest-matures

Andrew Ross Sorkin has his way with NYTimes policies on anonymous sourcing in this column.

First, he demonstrates his complete disregard for NY Times rules. He grants anonymity to an incoming call. A bank CEO calls him up, and is apparently completely secure that he is (quoting Tim Russert’s testimony in the Libby trial) “presumptively off the record.” Here’s the official NYTimes policy regarding interviewing sources and anonymity:

In routine interviewing – that is, most of the interviewing we do – anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source.

It’s hard to think of a way to more completely flout this policy. That he can be a prominent NYT columnist, on one of the most important beats in the country at this time, and considers the anonymity rules as something he need pay no attention to, is really something David Carr might want to report on, if he worked somewhere else.

Consider this:

we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us.

It’s hard not to laugh out loud. “We who have sought out a source” couldn’t be more directly opposite to how sourcing works here. Glenn Greenwald doesn’t exaggerate when he calls the anonymous CEO Sorkin’s assignment editor. The Times policy makes anonymous sourcing an extraordinary event. Sorkin’s (presumably passing through two or more editors) column makes it an absolutely routine part of his daily intercourse with sources.

And you know what’s really newsworthy here? The identity of the source. What bank CEO calls up the New York Times and dispatches a major columnist off to write a story? Shouldn’t the Times get someone on that? Isn’t it in the public interest to know which money center bank (which is how I read “major”) has this kind of influence over Times reporting?

It’s not like the official policy doesn’t reflect this concern:

In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.

Can you please ask Sorkin’s editors how the story passed that bar? How else can you characterize the quoted conversation–other than “special pleading”? Isn’t the real story here the level of concern among “CEO(s) of major banks” about the demonstration? Wouldn’t the proper journalistic response be to call up the other CEOs and ask them about their level of concern? And get them on the record?

The hilarity continues:

Confidential sources must have direct knowledge of the information they are giving us — or they must be the authorized representatives of an authority, known to us, who has such knowledge.
We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is.

In this case, the source is engaging in information-free speculation–is he in danger from those people? He needs to know, and sends Sorkin off to engage in his own speculation, based on what information he can gather on the source’s behalf.

At the very least, could you please ask Sorkin’s editors why this source is anonymous, and to ask Sorkin to stop embarrassing the paper by flouting its anonymity rules? I really do think there is a story here as well–just as there was a Jayson Blair story and a Judith Miller story. Maybe one of your more journalistic business reporters, like Gretchen Morgenson, could take a crack at it.

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