SPRINGFIELD — I read The Atlantic magazine story asserting that Donald Trump denigrated America’s war dead, and then I cringed.
It’s certainly troubling if any president were to say such a thing. But I have no way of reaching an objective determination on whether it was said or not.
Why? The story is based on anonymous sources.
Not only do we have no idea who these people are, we have no idea why they are speaking up now — two years after — the alleged utterance. And we also don’t know what access, if any, they had to the president.
Regular readers of this column know I’m no fan of Trump. But I am a fan of good journalism. And The Atlantic story doesn’t make the cut.
Yes, there are rare instances where unidentified sources are necessary, but it has become all too common a practice in American journalism.
In this case, the journalist is asking us to take his word that he was told these things.
Sorry, I’m not biting.
“Not having any identified sources in that story makes it far less credible,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school for news professionals.
The cloak of anonymity makes it next to impossible to hold sources accountable. What if they are lying or simply mistaken? Their identity will never be known.
I remember 25 years ago, I had a source on the Moline City Council who would leak to me what was discussed in closed executive sessions.
After I published a story citing an unnamed source spilling the beans on a project the city was involved with, my source rose the next week, wagged his finger at his colleagues and denounced “whoever was leaking to the press.”
I sat there, notebook in hand unable to hold this person accountable without breaking my promise of confidentiality. In other words, I’d inadvertently given the fellow a ticket to lie.
Some might say that is an extreme example. But it really isn’t. People in government are routinely asked by supervisors, peers and other reporters if they were the confidential source in a news story. Do you think they tell the truth when they are asked? Don’t bet on it.
And sometimes it’s not the source who is lying.
“There are liars in every profession — including journalism,” Tompkins reminded me.
Friends have pointed out that The Atlantic is a prestigious publication and for that reason we should give it extra credibility. Well, I love the magazine and have subscribed for more than 25 years.
But I also know that Jayson Blair worked for the New York Times, Stephen Glass for The New Republic, Janet Cooke for the Washington Post and Jack Kelley for USA Today. And each of these scoundrels fabricated sources despite working for high-profile publications.
So, the prestige of a publication doesn’t make it immune to wrongdoing within its ranks.
It’s worth noting that the Associated Press and other news organizations have apparently contacted some of the same individuals as The Atlantic and been told the same things — not for attribution.
Well, if the magazine’s competitors could figure out who the sources were within a few hours, don’t you think the president and other administration officials have a pretty good idea who is talking, too?
So, if the political insiders are in the know, the only people being deprived of the knowledge are the readers.
And we have no way of evaluating the credibility of the information. In that light, what value does it have?
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.