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Friday, July 15, 2005

There's Anonymous, and Then There's Anonymous

The Los Angeles Times' new ethics policy--which, as I've noted, takes a swipe at the Tribune Co. by urging reporters not to keep confidential information on company servers controlled by the corporate surrender monkeys in Chicago--appears to create an odd dual-tiered system of anonymity-granting, whereby reporters are authorized under one set of rules to grant limited confidentiality, and under another set of rules can offer sources the full Judith Miller Package.

First there's this: "When practical, a reporter should consult an editor before entering into an agreement to protect a source's anonymity. In some cases, an editor may insist on knowing the source's identity in order to evaluate the reliability of the information provided." That's actually more lenient than many sourcing policies, including the New York Times' and the Chicago Tribune's, which insist that an editor always be informed of any anonymous source's identity. The LAT only says that an editor may insist on knowing, but doesn't make a formal requirement of it. And reporters only have to seek prior approval of such arrangements when practical (which is to say, never).

But then there's this: "In rare instances, sources may insist that the paper and the reporter resist subpoenas and judicial orders, if necessary, to protect their anonymity. Reporters should consult a masthead editor before entering into any such agreement."

Rare instances? Isn't that the point of demanding anonymity? Sure, it's so your name doesn't show up in the paper. But usually there's a reason that sources don't want their names in the paper--namely that there will be negative consequences if certain people find out that they were talking. And people can find out whether they were talking by means other than reading the paper. Like, by issuing a subpoena. No one who asks for anonymity says, "Don't attach my name to this in the paper, but feel free to tell anybody who asks you that I was the source."

So you can enter into a confidentiality agreement without your editor's approval. But that agreement can't promise full, suboena- and court order-defying confidentiality--for that, you have to get a masthead editor's approval.

Which means the Los Angeles Times appears to be asking its reporters to say something like this: "We can do this right now under our routine anonymity service, which only takes you up to the subpoena level, at which point you're on your own. Or if you want, we could do it under Anonymity Plus, which gets you subpoena and court-order protection, but I'd have to get approval and call you back."

Which is just odd.