Anonymity, Cowardice, and Credibility

>Don't expect to find reliable information about Mark Hurd's firing from HP in today's gossipy front page Wall Street Journal story, but read it anyway, if you're interested in the promiscuous, unintentionally funny use of unjustifiably anonymous sources.  "A person familiar with the board's thinking" offers one explanation for Hurd's firing, while "someone familiar with Mr. Hurd's thinking," offers another.  Whatever.

 Why was "this person" and that person granted anonymity and how did they come to be "familiar" with all this "thinking"?  The Journal doesn't say.  But it seems reasonable to assume that at least one of these talkative "persons" is a board member interested in defending the board's action against the backlash it's reportedly provoked; maybe the other is a board member allied to Hurd; maybe he or she is a loyal former subordinate, or maybe his wife, college roommate, neighbor, or dog walker.  In any case, the WSJ seems to have gotten over what Jack Shafer once observed was its relative "reluctan(ce) ... to cite anonymice."

I'll leave the press criticism to Shafer and other followers of anonymice.  I'm more interested in the motives and character of people who offer "information" to reporters off the record on strict conditions of anonymity, when they'd risk nothing by speaking on the record other than loss of status or popularity, and perhaps their comfortable seats on corporate or not for profit boards.  They're not whistleblowers, exposing illegal or unethical activity and requiring anonymity to protect their livelihoods, or freedom.  They're not "leakers," providing objective evidence of wrongdoing or offering allegations that can be investigated and independently corroborated.  They're gossips, and sometimes backstabbers, whose information may be no more reliable then the alliances they extend to the people they betray.  Or they're simply cowards, with access to reporters who pander to their adolescent fears of not conforming: in a recent story on the Connecticut Senate race, the New York Times quoted an unnamed "democratic strategist" (who offered an obvious, innocuous observation about the potential cost of a Connecticut race,) granting him anonymity "because he did not want to antagonize his colleagues."  

If my judgments of these anonymous "persons" sound harsh it's because they're based on my own experiences as a source as well as writer.  As a source, and ACLU national board member, I spoke on the record to a New York Times reporter about unethical conduct at the ACLU and endured nothing worse than virtual expulsion from an ineffective board and the abiding enmity of people I don't respect.  As a journalist and author, I've been the recipient of stories about abuses of power at the ACLU offered by other current or former board members or former staff who declined to speak on the record and could provide no proof or evidence of their claims other than their own testimony. 

I often found these reports believable, based on my own knowledge and experience, and on one occasion, I quoted a reliable, former employee anonymously, because her career would have been jeopardized by disclosure; but I am generally squeamish about publishing uncorroborated hearsay and have no patience for people who decline to speak on the record simply because they don't want to be disliked or to "antagonize their colleagues."  I invest little credibility in the journalists who protect them.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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