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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Time's Sell-Out

Not to be too bombastic about it, but Time Warner's decision to sell out Matt Cooper's source renders moot any promise of anonymity given to any source by any journalist anywhere, ever.

Well, almost. Here's why:

1) The post-Glass, post-Blair, post-Kelly environment has tightened things up at every newspaper, and almost every paper has instituted sourcing guidelines that require reporters to clue at least one editor in on the identity of anonymous sources. Here's the New York Times', for example. All Tribune Co. properties--from the Chicago Tribune to the Los Angeles Times to the various local TV news operations--operate under a similar blanket TribCo policy.

2) That sounds like a good idea. It's a guard against renegade reporters who would make sources up, and it's a check on reporters who would use anonymity to make sources sound more knowledgable than they in fact are. It also makes the identity of the source corporate property.

3) Do the math. If you want to grant anonymity as a reporter, you must grant to your employer the right to make the final call on whether to protect your source when the chips are down. We know how Time Warner decided to play it--which should give pause to anyone who wants to talk to Time, People, Fortune, Entertainment Weekly, or Progressive Farmer under cover of night in the future. (Or CNN, for that matter--though this decision appears to have been made at the Time Inc. level of Time Warner.) We also know how Tribune Co. will play it, because the corporate policy on sourcing the company promulgated internally about a year ago explicitly required reporters to inform anonymous sources that their identities will be revealed to an editor and may be revealed to a court of law. When I asked my bosses--first the public editor and later the editor in chief--what that meant, both repeatedly declined to assure me that Tribune Co. would honor any promises of anonymity that I make in the Chicago Tribune's name. I got a lot of, "You don't know what you would do if you were facing jail for a contempt charge," and "We spend millions of dollars defending our reporters in court," but nothing even close to, "This newspaper will never divulge the identity of an anonymous source."

Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s disappointment notwithstanding--from what I can tell, the New York Times wasn't ordered to turn over responsive documents like Time was, so it's easy for him to profess outrage when he didn't face the same tough decision that Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine did--Time's choice to buckle cuts a wide swath of breathing room for the next media conglomerate faced with an anonymity problem.

Which means that from here on out, the sacred reporter-source relationship we hear so much about has been amended slightly. The next time a reporter for any publicly held conglomerate says, "Don't worry, I'll protect you," what he really means is, I'll protect you for such a time as it is convenient for my corporate employer to cooperate with me in doing so. After that, you're fucked.