An appetite for anonymity

The New York Times ran a blockbuster story on its front page Sunday about John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina who ran for president in 2004 and 2008. The topic of the NYT story is Edwards’ extramarital affair and a grand jury investigation into whether payments to Edwards’ mistress broke the law.

The legitimate media have had a hard time dealing with the Edwards affair. After the National Enquirer first reported Edwards’ relationship with Rielle Hunter, the News & Observer chased the story but could never confirm it. (Edwards eventually admitted to the affair in a “Nightline” interview.)

The problem was sourcing. Few people want to speak on the record about sensitive matters like a senator’s affair, and that means using anonymous sources. As noted here, the Raleigh newspaper, among others, has been reluctant to use such sources. The Enquirer is not. And unlike the Enquirer, the N&O and other legitimate American media will not pay sources for information.

The NYT cites anonymous sources more frequently than the N&O does. That practice has drawn the attention of the newspaper’s public editor, Clark Hoyt, who summed up the dilemma this way:

Accepting a source’s demand for anonymity is sometimes essential to getting critical information, but editors and reporters at The Times tell me that they understand how overuse of unnamed sources can damage credibility.

The front-page story on Edwards has sources speaking on the record, but it also has several quoted anonymously. Here’s how they are described:

  • associates
  • friends and other associates
  • one family friend, who like others spoke about the situation on the condition of anonymity, pointing to the complicated and delicate nature of the issue
  • lawyers involved in the case
  • people familiar with the grand jury investigation
  • people familiar with Ms. Hunter

Perhaps the story of the downfall of a former presidential candidate merits the use of such sources. The fact that a grand jury is involved certainly makes this news.

But the use of anonymous sources can open the door to abuse of the privilege. That happens in this sentence about Edwards and his wife:

But a few months ago, when the couple showed up for dinner at a Chapel Hill restaurant, diners averted their eyes and stared at their plates, according to a person who was there.

This sentence adds little, if anything, to the story. It has the tone of gossip and hardly seems like news that’s fit to print. It would have been wise for an editor to question its inclusion — and to hit the “delete” key.



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