Milbank's Cone of Silence
July 25, 2006 - 9:09am ET
When sources are promised to be quoted "off-the-record" is there a limit to how many reporters they can talk to at once and still be considered “anonymous?” Do anonymous sources get to invoke a “cone of silence” at any time, for any reason and expect everyone to follow along? Yes, according to Dana Milbank. In his column in today's Washington Post , about a “GOP Senate candidate” who is ashamed of being a Republican, Milbank writes that as long as the source doesn't want to identify himself, the reporters have to honor that agreement. Even if that source were talking to an entire room full of reporters and not saying anything particularly shocking.
See for yourself how Milbank describes how the “anonymous” candidate comes to be quoted.
The candidate gave the luncheon briefing to nine reporters from newspapers, magazines and networks under the condition that he be identified only as a GOP Senate candidate. When he was pressed to go on the record, his campaign toyed with the idea but got cold feet. He was anxious enough to air his gripes but cautious enough to avoid a public brawl with the White House.
It’s nice that this anonymous GOP Senate candidate wants to sound off about Bush—join the club, why don’t you?—but there is simply no reason for a whole roomful of reporters to allow for this kind of anonymous slam. I seriously doubt that this person’s identity is really going to remain secret from the White House for very long. After all, there’s only so many GOP senate candidates and the Milbank piece gives off more than enough clues such as the source "agrees with Bush's veto of human embryonic stem cell research, and supports constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and flag burning." So the only reason the source needs anonymity is to "avoid a public brawl with the White House." Since when is it's the press job to help the White House and Republican party critics coordinate messages?
While I agree that the Senate candidate is being particularly spineless, I think the press is being even more so in this case because it's not really protecting the source, it's protecting the White House.
So the reporters—like Milbank, who deserves to be slammed for this—who are participating in this little charade are only keeping one group in the dark, their readers.
Update: Less than 24 hour later the mysterious GOP Senate candidate is revealed, and it's Michael Steele , Maryland's Lt. governor.
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