Thursday, March 31, 2016

The WaPo should burn its "lawmaker" source

Two days ago, the Washington Post reported that the FBI had assigned 147 agents to investigate Hillary Clinton's private email server. That crazy number (seriously? the FBI can spare 147 agents for this investigation? Aren't there terrorism plots and stuff that need to be looked into?!?!) was then echoed by a bunch of other media outlets.

Yesterday, the WaPo issued a correction. The 147 number came from "a lawmaker briefed by FBI Director James B. Comey." In fact, the Post added in its correction, "the number of FBI personnel involved is fewer than 50." NBC's source close to the FBI later told their reporter that the number of agents is actually "about 12." So the WaPo's anonymous source vastly inflated the number, which, thanks to their bad reporting, will not be out in the ether of political discussion forever.

Years ago, Atrios was pushing the idea that if anonymous sources feed a news outlet deliberately false information, the news organization should reveal the identity of the source. That always seemed fair to me. Anonymous sources can be useful to get someone talking to reporters who fears retaliation. But anonymity can also be abused by people who try to use the news media to push deliberately false stories for political purposes. It seems pretty clear that is what happened here.

It's not surprising that a "lawmaker" who was briefed by the FBI director (i.e. a member of Congress) would have a political agenda. But why the hell would the WaPo grant anonymity under those circumstances? This does not look like a "judicious" use of anonymous sources to me. If a lawmaker is going to abuse the WaPo's willingness to grant anonymity to feed it bad information, why does that paper have any obligation to protect the source's identity? The Washington Post should tell us who the "lawmaker" is.