The Problem with Unnamed Sources

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Newsweek had to fall on its own sword today, admitting that it's story about U.S. guards flushing the Holy Koran down the toilet was based on unreliable, unnamed sources.

The admission came too late to save the lives of rioters killed in Afghanistan and elsewhere. As irresponsible as the story was, the real culprit here isn't Newsweek as much as it is the cheap journalistic practice of hanging a story on unnamed sources and innuendo.

The master of this technique is the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh (search). From stories that panned out (like My Lai, Vietnam) to stories that fizzled (like the discredited “October Surprise” story), Hersh’s portfolio of work hinges largely on sources unwilling to go public. What Hersh usually does is seek out folks who will speak off the record about officials they don't like—not a terribly hard thing to do.

Hersh’s last use of this technique was in a series of New Yorker pieces designed to link Pentagon officials and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) to the Abu Ghraib (search) abuses.

Official investigations have ruled that the Abu Ghraib abuses were not ordered or designed by the Pentagon, but Hersh constructed his stories largely from Pentagon and CIA bureaucrats who hated Don Rumsfeld, just like the Newsweek story appears to have been indirectly sourced back to folks who hated the U.S.

I spent 12 years editing and writing articles in The Wall Street Journal on Latin America. My rule then was never to allow more than 25 percent unnamed sources for any article. I could have gotten more scoops by using mostly unnamed sources. But that wouldn’t have been fair to the readers or to the story. Hopefully Newsweek’s tragedy will lead to a closer look at the Hersh school of journalism.

And that’s the Observer.

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