How Not to Be Fooled: Sources Say

Always Ask Who Is Saying It – and Why?

Anonymous sources have become a media game of Chinese whispers. A Devil’s Curmudgeon.

In the dim, dark, pre-internet days, a journalist’s contact book was their prized possession. As veteran journalist Alex Mitchell recounts, his contacts “were the lifeblood of my professional life”. I still remember my first contact book, when I was a freelance music journalist in the 80s. It was a little, lime-green plastic-coated number I’d got from the Reject Shop, falling to pieces and crammed full of names and phone numbers. I’d have been stuffed without it.

These days a contact list is more likely to be a collection of mobile phone numbers and email addresses – or much worse, a Twitter feed. Alex Mitchell disparaged Millennial journalists who spend all their time browsing their Twitter feed. “They wouldn’t know a scoop if it sort of fell over them […] because they’re just getting stuff given to them off the internet or via press releases. That’s got nothing to do with journalism, that’s not serious.”

But if staying glued to Twitter locks modern journalists into an ever-shrinking echo-chamber, the ever-increasing reliance on anonymous sources is dragging modern journalism from the gutter to the whorehouse.

Coupled with the near-universal Trump Derangement of the modern media, the effect is that Legacy media journalists no longer merely peddle knowing lies; they’ve become almost completely divorced from reality. They are liars who don’t even know they’re lying any more.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with using anonymous sources – I’ve done so myself. But a journalist should know their source and be capable of judging their trustworthiness. The Media Alliance Code of Ethics, should any journalist actually bother to dust it off, warns, “do not agree [to anonymity] without first considering the source’s motives”.

This is particularly true in politics. Leaks have been the lifeblood of political journalism since John Adams published the Hutchinson Letters. But leakers always have a personal agenda. In the case of the Hutchinson Letters, Benjamin Franklin (who intercepted the letters as Postmaster General) wanted to foment rebellion – an agenda Adams shared. Some politicians become practically addicted to leaking. Hypocrisy is rarely far away, either: more than one journalist can attest to private leakers publicly thundering against their own leaks.

But over-reliance on the internet means that, too often, journalists neither know nor can evaluate their sources. Wikileaks and Anonymous have both been heavily relied upon by journalists in recent years. But, as journalist Heather Brooke has warned, “you can’t determine their bona fides, you can’t discern their motives and you have perhaps no way of [corroborating] or verifying what they’re telling you”.

In the Trump era, this has become a critical issue – because overwhelmingly left-wing journalists share the unhinged desperation of the Washington establishment to take down Trump by any means necessary. As one of my old journalism textbooks warns, journalists who share their sources’ obsessions have almost certainly sacrificed their objectivity. They so desperately want to believe the worst about Trump that they never question for an instant the most obvious lies about the president.

The Steele Dossier, for instance, was an obvious fraud, but journalists fell over themselves to publish it. The media regularly libel Trump as a “racist”, despite the decades of smiling selfies with nearly every notable black figure in America, from Rosa Parks and Jesse Jackson to Muhammad Ali. As lawyer and commentator Kurt Schlichter asks, “Is there a single recorded incident of Trump using racial slurs?”

The answer, of course, is no. The only, unverified claim that he ever has comes from a single source – a disgruntled ex-employee. No journalist worth their salt would ever, in a more reasonable age, have published such a tainted source without independent corroboration.

Journalism has become so debased, in the age of Trump, that media rarely even bother to attribute sources any more. Almost invariably, the most ridiculous lies about the president are attributed to unnamed, “source say…” Other key phrases are, “White House sources”, “sources close to the president”, and so on.

Even more pathetically, Legacy media have taken to quoting “sources familiar with the president’s thinking”.

Which, unless the Legacy media are quoting John Edwards or Uri Geller (two sources actually more credible than the Legacy media), means that they’re just making it up.
As an old maxim of logic goes, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

The claim that the President of the United States is a literal Nazi is a colossal claim. Concomitantly, the evidence needs to be colossal and unequivocal. Not just “sources say”.

So, in the age of Trump more than ever, the critical media consumer must always ask themselves:

  • Who is the source?
  • Are they credible?
  • What is their likely agenda?

Finally, the bigger the story, the more important than ever that the source be named and reliable.

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