News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Anonymity and accountability

We live in a world awash in information — and every day it gets harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s increasingly challenging for people working in good faith to sort out fact from fiction, truth from misinformation, disinformation and outright lies.

During Oregon’s recent spate of catastrophic wildfires, rumors spread as virulently as the wind-driven flames. Law enforcement agencies from the FBI to the Douglas and Jackson County sheriff’s offices found it necessary to address persistent rumors — presented as established fact — that extremists were starting fires. They published statements that the rumors were not only unfounded but categorically false.

While arsonists were found to have started some of the fires — and arrests were made — law enforcement investigated claims that extremists were engaged in a concerted campaign of terroristic arson and found them to be untrue. Which didn’t stop the rumors from spreading.

While it’s not in the same category as wild rumor, the over-reliance on anonymous sources in national media also feeds a climate where information cannot be trusted. A recent article in The Atlantic by editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg cited multiple unnamed sources who claimed that President Donald Trump disparaged American service members as “losers” and “suckers” in the context of an aborted trip to a World War I military cemetery in France in 2018.

Those inclined to think the worst of Donald Trump were quick to seize upon the report, which rings true to them: Trump, after all, has mocked and derided lots of people, including his very public disparagement of the late Senator John McCain, who was a POW during the Vietnam War.

Trouble is, other people who were present categorically reject the report. And those people are not anonymous. How should a person working in good faith weigh the relative credibility of people who are willing to put their names to their statements and those who are not?

In his recent memoir, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is, to put it mildly, not on friendly terms with the President, said the decision not to visit the cemetery was weather-related. Bolton told The New York Times that he did not hear Trump use the disparaging words depicted in Goldberg’s story.

“I didn’t hear that. I’m not saying he didn’t say them later in the day or another time, but I was there for that discussion.”

Goldberg is arguing that we should trust his reporting. In a letter to the editor in The Nugget last week, D.S. Findlay said that The Atlantic “retracted the validity of their anonymous ‘source.’” That’s not accurate.

In an interview with CNN, Goldberg said, “I stand by my reporting, I have multiple sources telling me this is what happened, and so I stand by it.” He also said that he is sure that all of the things that Bolton wrote in his own account are true.

We’re unlikely to get the chance to see how Bolton’s account and Goldberg’s report can both be true, because we don’t know who Goldberg talked to. Much has been made of reports that the Associated Press and FOX News “confirmed” parts of Goldberg’s reporting. But we should be aware of what “confirmation” means in this context, as noted by Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept:

“(J)ournalism is not supposed to be grounded in whether something is ‘believable’ or ‘seems like it could be true.’ Its core purpose, the only thing that really makes it matter or have worth, is reporting what is true, or at least what evidence reveals. And that function is completely subverted when news outlets claim that they ‘confirmed’ a previous report when they did nothing more than just talked to the same people who anonymously whispered the same things to them as were whispered to the original outlet.”

There are valid reasons to protect the anonymity of sources who provide critical, substantive and verifiable information — on tax data, for instance. Saving insiders from owning what amounts to gossip about the boss isn’t one.

By relying solely on anonymous sources, Goldberg undermines trust in his reporting and dilutes the potential impact of his work. It seems he may have a glimmer of realization to that effect. When Chris Hayes of MSNBC pressed him on anonymous sourcing, he replied:

“I share that view that it’s not good enough. But, you know, like other reporters, I’m always balancing out the moral ambiguities and complications after anonymous sourcing with the public’s right to know… These are people in the various rooms. But, yeah, obviously it would be better if people would say, attach their names to what they know.”

Yeah, obviously, it would.

Standards for journalists and for folks posting online or talking with friends really shouldn’t be much different. If information cannot be verified from a responsible source that has accountability, it should be treated very carefully — and the more inflammatory it is, the more skeptically it should be viewed. We should all do our best to follow verifiable information where it leads — and then let the truth will out and the chips fall where they may.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

Author photo

Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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