Anonymous sources: Perry impresses evangelicals

Imagine how frustrating it must be for journalists when a leading presidential candidate — say Texas Gov. Rick Perry — holds a private retreat with 200 potential supporters sworn to secrecy. (As a believer in freedom of information and open government, I share their pain.)

In such a situation, what's a reporter to do?

Find some loose lips willing to — pssssssst — share the behind-the-scenes details anonymously, of course.

Unfortunately, that brand of reporting — out of necessity or not — produces rather thin and credibility-challenged journalism. Among those resorting to quoting unnamed participants: the Texas Tribune and U.S. News & World Report

I may have missed other reports (feel free to share the links if I did), but I want to focus on a story in today's Los Angeles Times. The top of the 1,100-word report, which relies heavily on three anonymous sources:

Reporting from Washington — On a remote ranch more than 70 miles west of Austin, Texas, top evangelical leaders from around the country assembled last weekend for a private two-day retreat.

It wasn't a religious revival that drew the group of 200, which included luminaries of the Christian right; it was the chance to hear the personal testimony of one man: Rick Perry.

Inside an air-conditioned tent, the Texas governor and Republican presidential contender was grilled about his beliefs and his record in extraordinarily frank sessions. He responded by describing his relationship with Jesus and pledging to pursue the antiabortion and anti-gay-marriage agenda championed by the evangelical right, according to multiple participants.

Quick, define "top evangelical leader." But I digress ...

Two thoughts strike me after reading that opening

– First, I wonder if the anonymous sources quoted in this piece are "authorized" leaks by the organizers. I could be wrong, but the portrayal of the meeting ("extraordinarily frank sessions") sounds like someone pushing Perry's candidacy. The alternative is that the sources promised not to talk about the event and then did, which would raise questions about their trustworthiness, right?

– Second, the phrase "anti-gay-marriage agenda championed by the evangelical right" gives me pause. Is it an "anti-gay-marriage agenda" or a "pro-traditional-family agenda?" And has the evangelical right pushed it, or has a broader group of social conservatives — including Catholics and others — done so?

More from the story:

"I don't see how it could have gone any better for Gov. Perry — he had all the right answers," said one prominent figure who attended the retreat and declined to be named, citing a pledge to the organizers that participants would not discuss the event publicly.

And this:

He spoke openly about his faith and unabashedly so," said one leader who was present. "I think he resonated because he was very honest and very real. People could ask any questions, and he never dodged one."

And this:

"It was an extraordinary gathering," said one participant. "Virtually anyone who is a significant player in the social conservative movement either was there or had a representative there. And this was in the middle of nowhere."

And after the interviews, the sources and the Times reporters paused and sang "Kumbaya."

Your reaction? Is the story important enough to rely on anonymous sources? Is this report credible? Who's using whom here — the Times taking advantage of sources or sources taking advantage of the Times? Maybe this is simply the way the game is played in Washington. (Thought I'd say it before someone else could.)

On the bigger religion front, does the piece provide any insight on Perry's faith or just rehash what's already known (that he's a Methodist who attends an evangelical megachurch)?

Inquiring minds want to know. By all means, read the story and respond. Let's talk journalism (as opposed to politics, but loyal GetReligion readers already knew that).

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