“Careful, Accurate, and Fair”?

“CAREFUL, ACCURATE, AND FAIR”?….A Washington Post editorial today says that the editor of the Post is right to describe Bob Woodward as “one of the most careful, accurate and fair journalists I have ever worked with.” But the editorial then goes on to say this:

Much of the public finds the media’s extensive use of confidential sources objectionable, and understandably so. Their use should be as limited as possible. When they are relied upon, reporters should impart as much information as possible about the sources’ motives. Those guidelines are accepted but too often ignored by the press.

Sorry guys, but you can’t have it both ways. Bob Woodward’s signature journalistic method is to seek out interviews with dozens upon dozens of movers and shakers, grant them all anonymity, and then repeat their often self-serving words to his readers without providing any clue about who’s saying what or why they’re saying it. If the extensive and uncritical use of confidential sources is indeed objectionable, then Woodward is the high priest of objectionable.

For a better take, here is Tim Rutten in the LA Times today:

There is something singularly appropriate about the fact that the Plame affair should involve Woodward, whose skillful and courageous use of the ur-voice among confidential sources virtually created a whole genre of Washington reporting. It’s a journalistic strategy style dependent on the cultivation of access to well-placed officials greased by promises of “confidentiality.” It’s a way of doing journalism that still serves its practitioners’ career interests, but less and less often their readers or viewers because it’s a game the powerful and well-connected have learned to play to their own advantage.

….The [Bush] administration has adroitly availed itself of the cultural complicity that prevails in a fin de si?cle Washington press corps living out the decadence of an increasingly discredited reporting style. As the Valerie Plame scandal and its spreading taint have made all too clear, the trade in confidentiality and access that has made stars of reporters like Bob Woodward and Judy Miller now is utterly bankrupt.

It still may call itself investigative journalism ? and so it once was ? but now it’s really just a glittering and carefully choreographed waltz in which all the dancers share the unspoken agreement that the one unpardonable faux pas is to ask who’s calling the tune.

I’ve long been a supporter of a federal shield law for reporters because I think the value of protecting whistleblowers outweighs the risk of abuse from reporters and sources who use confidentiality for more venal purposes. But I have to say, between the Wen Ho Lee case, the WMD case, and the Valerie Plame case, America’s journalistic community sure is making it hard for me to stick to my guns on this.

Support the Washington Monthly and get a FREE subscription