HAYDEN HOLLINGSWORTH: The Risks of Anonymity

Hayden Hollingsworth

I’m not quite sure when reporting facts began to be cited as “from a source requesting anonymity because of not being authorized to speak.”   One of the first major events where sources were not revealed was Watergate. It was more than 30 years after the fact that Mark Felt was unmasked.   It was, I believe, about the time of 9/11 when revealing news sources took a sharp pivot.  The lack of sourcing began to appear with regularity in national periodicals and quickly found its way into the daily newspapers.

The first reaction to not citing sources raised several questions, the primary being why it was necessary.  When the term “whistleblower” first surfaced, it quickly became obvious why hiding oneself after disclosing unpleasant facts was essential for job survival.  Soon reporters were being demanded to release their sources and nearly all refused to do so.  Many were threatened with job loss or worse, but most stood their ground even in the face of jail terms.

The second reaction quickly followed:  How do we know the information is true?  A rule of journalism when reporting facts is that it should be verified by at least two sources.  Does the anonymous report meet that standard?  Who can tell but likely not.

Obviously the media are in the business of gathering facts.  Given the finite number of facts available and the cutthroat competition to be the first outlet with “breaking news” it is easy to see how things could get out of hand . . . and that is exactly what has happened.

Most believe that the vast majority of the press is loyal to the truth and scrupulous in their reportage.  We are all aware of the rare case when fabrication replaces facts and Pulitzers are given out only to be retracted when the truth wills out . . . and it nearly always does. Such incidents are vanishing small but still they do happen.

Now the stage is set for the current mess in which we find ourselves embroiled.  If sources cannot be verified, it is a very short step to rejecting them as biased or even worse, as untrue.  The concept of fake news and alternative facts are on many minds.  Add to that a suspicion the media has a vested interest in discrediting an individual or an institution and the entire principle of objectivity becomes suspect. Paranoia replaces thoughtful analysis.

It is no accident that the first amendment deals with freedom of speech and a cornerstone of that concerns the press.  The first step in chipping away at the foundation of democracy is to control the press.

In 1962 Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II wrote a thriller entitled Seven Days in May which depicted an attempted overthrow of the US government.  The paramount requirement for this to occur was control of the press in all forms. It was later made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and it is worth watching.

Perhaps there have been times in our history when such control of the press might have been contemplated, but what we are witnessing today seems unprecedented.  To have the free media labelled as “the enemy” is chilling.  Clearly we are entitled to hold them accountable for what they say but disagreement with their conclusions is not license to condemn them.

We have in place a tripartite government.  It is time to make sure that all three components act to protect our freedoms.  We will soon find out who is willing to stand up and be counted and who will look the other way.  This can be a watershed moment not only for the Constitution but for democracy.

Hayden Hollingsworth