Feinstein: Anonymous Sources Are Inexcusable

For years, I had an old Peanuts strip on my desk—sadly, it got lost in a house-to-house move—that depicted Peppermint Patty explaining to her invisible teacher why she hadn’t done her homework.

“I was watching television for a while…Then I was reading some comic books…And then there was more television.” A pause and then, standing on her chair, finger in the air Peppermint Patty says, “I blame the media!”

Blaming the media is as American as apple pie and hot dogs, not to mention waving the flag. If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, “You’re just trying to sell newspapers,” I might own a newspaper. Here’s a simple fact: no one every wrote a story to sell newspapers because no writer every made any money off the sale of the newspaper.

Nowadays, very few people refer to newspaper sales. Instead, they say, “you’re just trying to get more clicks.”

Sadly, they’re right sometimes.

I have an ongoing argument with one of my colleagues at The Post about the subjects he chooses to write about. He’s very talented and, when he writes about topics that are legitimately newsworthy, he’s really good. But he wastes a lot of time—and cyber-space–writing about things like what fans think of the starting quarterback or the coach or the manager. Or quoting talking heads on radio or TV. Fans think the same thing all the time: when you’re winning, everyone’s great; when you’re losing everyone’s awful. Talking heads always root, root, root for the home team.

What is interesting is trying to figure out why a team or individual is great or awful and—to me anyway—why they are who they are, for good or for bad.

My ongoing argument with my colleague almost always ends this way: “I have to keep the editors happy and what makes them happy are clicks.”

I don’t doubt him in the least.

At least in his case, the stuff he writes that is worthless but gets clicks, is pretty harmless. My concern is the anonymous quote—or as my old friend Lefty Driesell used to call it, ‘the unanimous quote.’

I know I’ve written about this before but the epidemic nature of this issue jumped out at me last week when ESPN.com quoted someone anonymously in a story about last seasons NBA Finals as saying that the Warriors had played, ‘like cowards,’ in game 5. That was the game the NBA forced Draymond Green to sit out with the Warriors playing at home in position to win the series, 4-1.

Let’s put the conspiracy theories—the NBA wanted to extend the series so it suspended Green—aside. Green’s a wonderful player but he repeatedly did dumb things throughout the playoffs. He was the guy who was only going 66 in a 55 when the cop pulled him over but had already had five speeding tickets in the past month. He was way past a warning.

The Cavaliers, as everyone knows, won game 5 in Oakland and went on to win the series in seven games. You might have seen a few stories about their breaking Cleveland’s 52-year skein without a world champion.

The ESPN story quotes a ‘team official,’ as calling the players ‘cowards,’ for their game 5 performance.

Forgive me if I’m shouting, ‘get off my lawn,’ at the 20-somethings who now populate the world of sports journalism, but there is NO WAY you allow someone to hide behind anonymity while lobbing that bomb at a team he works for—according to the story.

I will say this again: anonymous quotes should only be used if you are convinced they are the only way to get a FACT into a story. Something like, “A source said that Steve Kerr will be the next coach of the Warriors.” Or, “a source said Matt Williams will be fired as manager of the Nationals.”

Those are FACTS—and if you write them you better be right; you better be sure your source knows what he or she is talking about. You don’t allow people to express opinions anonymously. As Klay Thompson said, “if you call someone a coward, how are you not going to put your name on the quote?”

Exactly. The ultimate act of cowardice is to attack someone and then not stand behind your attack. But it has now become standard practice in ‘journalism,’ to let people get away with anonymous attack quotes. Why? Because that attracts more clicks.
“Warriors labelled cowards,” will certainly attract more eyeballs than, “Warriors just didn’t get it done.”

The biggest problem with the internet—and the power that it wields—is its anonymity. Everyone has plenty of courage when they can hide out. Of course there are also plenty of bloggers out there who just throw out opinions and cast them as fact—check out the Presidential election. There’s not much anyone can do about those people—other than being smart enough to ignore them.

But when legitimate news organizations routinely grant anonymity to people who are throwing out attack quotes, it is inexcusable.

I’m not picking on ESPN here because they aren’t the only ones guilty of this practice by any means, but let’s take a closer look at the quote from the alleged, ‘team official.’

Was this person someone in the front office or someone in the ticket office. Was he (or she) someone who had regular access to the locker room and knows the players well enough to understand their mindset? Did the person have contact with Kerr, the coaching staff or the players before, during or after game 5?

Those are questions an editor should ask as soon as the quote comes across his desk. Actually, the first question should be, “why can’t you get this guy on the record?”

The answer will be, “well, he’s not going to call the team cowards on the record.” (because he’s a coward).

“Okay then, what WILL he say on the record?”

If the answer is nothing, that should be the end of that source’s involvement in the story. Go get someone on the record. If you’re old enough to remember ‘All The President’s Men,’ you’ll remember that Woodward and Bernstein printed NOTHING without two sources confirming FACTS—not opinions.

But if you are going to let the ‘cowards,’ quote get into print you must at least insist on identifying the source with more than a ‘team official.’ Like I said, he could be the security guard standing outside the locker room who shakes his head and says, ‘they played like cowards tonight,’ while reporters are waiting for the room to open. He could be the public relations intern who is frustrated because his team didn’t win.

I make this argument often to reporters who make anonymous references. A friend of mine—someone in my age group—wrote a column several months ago quoting a “Hall of Famer,” as saying that Johnny Manziel could still be a star in the NFL. When I asked him why he didn’t use the guy’s name he said, “he doesn’t want to be quoted by name in case he’s wrong.”

WELL THEN TELL HIM TO SHUT UP. And don’t quote him. Do a little more work and go find someone with the guts to go on the record—one way or the other.

I understand the world’s a very different place than the one I grew up in. The Washington Post that I so revered as a young reporter is also a different place. Clicks matter—I get it.

But I don’t have to like it OR give it into it. When I criticize someone I do it one of two ways—in my own voice—or in someone else’s—by name. Ask Mike Rizzo or Dan Snyder or Tiger Woods. They may not like me, but they certainly know where to find me.

John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “The DH,”—his 10th young adult mystery. His first, “Last Shot,” won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writing in the young adult category. His book, “The Legends Club,–Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Mike Krzyzewski and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,”—came out in March and spent six months on The New York Times bestseller list.

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