anonymous sources

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

I think that it’s safe to say that Jerry Falwell, Jr., has had a rough year or two.

I don’t say that as a cheap shot. I say that as someone who has followed the adventures of the Falwell family and Liberty University with great interest since the early 1980s, when elite newsrooms — The New Yorker came first, methinks — started paying serious attention to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Of course, there is a good reason for political reporters and others to dig into Falwell, Jr., affairs. His early decision to endorse Donald Trump, instead of Sen. Ted Cruz, helped create the loud minority of white evangelicals who backed The Donald in early primaries. Without them, including Falwell, Trump doesn’t become the nominee and then, in a lesser-of-two-evils race with Hillary Clinton, squeak into the White House.

So that leads us to a rather interesting — on several levels — piece of neo-tabloid journalism at the New York Times, with this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.” The “evangelical,” of course, is Falwell.

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. Thus, here is the big summary statement:

Mr. Falwell — who is not a minister and spent years as a lawyer and real estate developer — said his endorsement was based on Mr. Trump’s business experience and leadership qualities. A person close to Mr. Falwell said he made his decision after “consultation with other individuals whose opinions he respects.” But a far more complicated narrative is emerging about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the months before that important endorsement.

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.

The revelations have arisen from a lawsuit filed against the Falwells in Florida; the investigation into Mr. Cohen by federal prosecutors in New York; and the gonzo-style tactics of the comedian and actor Tom Arnold.

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

One key anonymous source? That’s right.

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New York Times on Ginni Thomas: Let our anonymous sources label this religious nut for you

New York Times on Ginni Thomas: Let our anonymous sources label this religious nut for you

Anyone who has followed the work of religious conservatives in Washington, D.C., knows this name — Ginni Thomas.

She is, of course, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She is also a key figure in Republican Party politics, when it comes time to draw a bright red line between ordinary GOP power brokers (think corporate interests and country clubs) and people who are religious conservatives, first, and Republicans, second.

This is not a woman who, under normal circumstances, would hang out with the kinds of people who tend to spiral around Donald Trump, especially in the decades before he needed the approval of some old-guard Religious Right folks.

The key: To some Beltway people, Ginni Thomas represents a brand of conservatism worse than the brew Trump has been trying to sell.

What does this divide look like when it ends up in the New York Times? It certainly looks like the Times has its sources — unnamed, of course — among the cultural libertarians inside this White House. Readers are clubbed over the head during the overture of an alleged news story that ran with this headline: “Trump Meets With Hard-Right Group Led by Ginni Thomas.

WASHINGTON — President Trump met last week with a delegation of hard-right activists led by Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, listening quietly as members of the group denounced transgender people and women serving in the military, according to three people with direct knowledge of the events.

For 60 minutes Mr. Trump sat, saying little but appearing taken aback, the three people said, as the group also accused White House aides of blocking Trump supporters from getting jobs in the administration.

It is unusual for the spouse of a sitting Supreme Court justice to have such a meeting with a president, and some close to Mr. Trump said it was inappropriate for Ms. Thomas to have asked to meet with the head of a different branch of government.

A vocal conservative, Ms. Thomas has long been close to what had been the Republican Party’s fringes. …

It gets worse! Later, Times congregants received this terrifying news: Thomas prayed.

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Despite risks in a time of audience skepticism, anonymous sources can be invaluable 

Despite risks in a time of audience skepticism, anonymous sources can be invaluable 

We live in an ethical epoch when editors at BuzzFeed and Politico have no scruples when a reporter sleeps with a prime source on her beat, after which she lands a prized New York Times job, at the very top of the journalism food chain.

Not that flexible conflict-of-interest standards are anything new. Ben Bradlee, as lauded as any journalist of his era, exploited a close friendship with President John F. Kennedy when he was Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, giving fits to his competitors at Time. Bradlee was covering events that, one could argue, that he had helped shape in his conversations with Kennedy.

In 2018, such stuff matters more than ever, given the low esteem of “mainstream media” performance. The latest evidence comes in a survey reported June 11 by the American Press Institute, The Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago.

We learn that 35 percent of Americans have a negative view of news organizations, and 42 percent think news coverage veers too far into commentary, while 63 percent want to get mostly facts alongside limited analysis. Importantly, 42 percent don’t understand how the use of anonymous sources works and 68 percent say the media should offer more information about story sources.

President Donald Trump’s frequently fake “fake news” attacks on reporters, of course, continually involve complaints about unnamed sources. For sure, the Washington press corps, which makes such lavish use of anonymous sources in coverage critical of the Trump administration, must do everything possible to maintain accuracy and fairness.

Once upon a time -- in 2005 -- the staff Credibility Group formed in the wake of the horrid Jayson Blair scandal advised New York Times colleagues in a report titled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust [.pdf here].” It warned that the daily should “keep unidentified attribution to a minimum” and “energetically” enforce limits across the board -- in hard news, features, magazine sections, and with copy from the growing number of freelance contributors.

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New York Times offers lots of whispers (hint, hint) about Pence's patient waiting game

New York Times offers lots of whispers (hint, hint) about Pence's patient waiting game

Sooooooo ... Did anyone read the OTHER big mainstream news feature involving the vice president?

There was, of course, that tsunami of digital ink about Mike and Karen Pence and their attempts to follow the marital example of Billy Graham rather than Bill Clinton. But there was also a long New York Times feature the other day about the vice president that ran with this calm, friendly headline: "Amid White House Tumult, Pence Offers Trump a Steady Hand."

GetReligion readers can read this report in one of two ways.

First of all, it does contain obvious references to the rather striking differences -- at the level of personal style and, by implication, faith and character -- between President Donald Trump and his squeaky clean evangelical vice president. This led to some nice turns of phrase, such as Pence being a "Hill-wise former Indiana congressman who is typically a palliative presence in an administration of piranhas." Hold that thought.

At the same time, you can read this story as a kind of Game of Thrones parable. Note, for example, that the Times team may have broken some kind of journalism record for the number of off-the-record sources used in an article about a vice president. This is one of those stories that delights inside the Beltway politicos, forcing them to grab a high-lighter pen and play the old "name that White House aide" game.

Read this way, Pence is seen as a kind of quiet, wise Washington pro who is waiting for the other Trump shoe to drop. Thus, the Times notes that "Mr. Pence’s dad-in-the-Norman Rockwell-painting demeanor masks a shrewd political intelligence." In the current White House, Pence is "jarringly out of place, a clean-cut 1950s Republican cheerfully navigating the chaotic 'Mad Max' landscape."

The implication, of course (one senses the presence of Democrats starting research for attacks on a Pence presidency) is that Pence has been muddied just by agreeing to play ball with Trump in the first place.

This is where the religion angle starts to show up.

That’s the challenge he’s faced since accepting the job of Mr. Trump’s straight-man running mate last summer. Many Pence advisers, including his wife, Karen, were wary of the offer.

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Pope Francis and the trendy new world of 'omniscient anonymous' journalism

Pope Francis and the trendy new world of 'omniscient anonymous' journalism

It may be time to introduce a new term into the world of writing, and alleged hard-news journalism in particular.

First, a few notes about news craft. Normally, hard-news journalism is written in third-person voice in past tense, with a heavy emphasis on the use of clear attributions for quoted materials, so that readers know who is speaking. That crucial "comma, space, said, space, name, period" formula is at the heart of traditional, American Model of the Press journalism.

The bottom line: It's a key element in retaining the trust of readers. Traditional journalists are, as a rule, going to tell the reader the sources for the information they are reading. If something comes from the Family Research Council, say so. If something comes from Planned Parenthood or a company linked to Planned Parenthood, say so.

This is less crucial in opinion-based writing, since writers -- usually in first-person voice -- are sharing their own biases, beliefs, etc. The world of journalism needs both, in my opinion, but it is impossible to have good, healthy public discourse without lots and lots of basic, accurate, fair-minded, balanced hard-news journalism with clear, concise attributions.

In fiction, people can be very creative in terms of the point of view used in telling a story. In journalism? Basically, it's clear third-person or first person.

This brings me to what I see as a disturbing trend in journalism -- the creation of a point of view that could be called "omniscient anonymous" voice. Here is a sample from a new story in The Washington Post. I ask readers to look for the source of these stated facts about, yes, Pope Francis and his upcoming visit to the United States:

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All the anonymous Vatican voices in the Gray Lady

At this point in the conclave process, I’m sure that millions of liberal Catholics are carefully watching The New York Times daily coverage to see what the world’s most powerful newspaper has to say about who will be, and who should be, the next occupant of the Throne of St. Peter.

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Guess which WPost reporter refuses to cover you fairly

This weekend, we looked at the Washington Post ombudsman column that revealed that the newspaper has an extremely serious problem with doing basic journalism when it comes to the thorny issue of whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples.

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