Once removed, an anonymous source is still anonymous.
  • kieferpix/Photos.com
  • Once removed, an anonymous source is still anonymous.

A little attribution has become a dangerous thing.

We all know a lot of attribution has its perils, which is why so many sources prefer to lie low, happy to inflect and direct the news so long as nobody knows they’re doing it. For a long time, plenty of reporters were cool with protecting sources this way.

Today, not so much. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan had this to say in August about the use of anonymous sources: “Readers deplore it, public editors shake a finger at it, Times editors and reporters say they try to minimize it.” The Times style book calls it a “last resort.”

Sullivan was back on the same soap box in September, ripping the Times for the categorical headline “Qaeda Plot Leak Has Undermined U.S. Intelligence.” Says who? The headline gave us no idea. The story didn’t say either, though if you kept reading long enough you found out the reporter had been talking to a “United States official.”

Reading the Times on Wednesday, I came across this puzzler. It concerned the sacking of Qadri Jamil, deputy prime minister of Syria, after a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.

Here’s the passage:

[Jamil] said that while he did not want to work with the Syrian government as a full-time partisan, he would go to Geneva [peace talks] as part of a loyal opposition and would eventually return to Syria.

At their meeting last week, Mr. Jamil tried unsuccessfully to persuade Mr. Ford to allow him to attend the meeting [in Geneva] as an opposition member, Reuters reported, citing a Middle Eastern official.

Here’s my question. Should we hail the Times for clearly identifying the source of its information about Jamil’s conversation with Ford? Or should we laugh at the Times for using as a source a wire service that didn’t identify its own source? (Here’s the original Reuters story.)

A Middle Eastern official? What is that? High official? Low official? From where? Peripatetic foreign correspondents have a proud history of quoting the cabdrivers who take them from the airport to their hotel. Perhaps this official was the dispatcher at the taxi service in Qatar.

What Reuters reported and the Times robotically rereported was marginally interesting and immeasurably less explosive than “Qaeda Plot Leak Has Undermined U.S. Intelligence.” But journalistic practice doesn’t have to be offensive to be absurd.