Media Ethics: Issues Raised by Michael Lewis's Obama Article in Vanity Fair

"It is true that when you interview people you do develop relationships, and there is some pressure not to burn the people you admire and rely on." (David Brooks, NY Times, June 30, 2010)

"From Capitol Hill to the Treasury Department, interviews granted only with quote approval have become the default position. Those officials who dare to speak out of school, but fearful of making the slightest off-message remark, shroud even the most innocuous and anodyne quotations in anonymity by insisting they be referred to as a 'top Democrat' or a 'Republican strategist.'" (Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times, July 15, 2012)

Michael Lewis's excellent article, "Obama's Way," in the October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair about the Obama White House raises some interesting questions about sourcing. By allowing the White House to approve quotations -- which he has admitted -- he is surrendering some of his independence as a journalist in exchange for access.

We might recall what Jeremy W. Peters wrote in the same New York Times July 15, 2012 article I cite above and which was entitled, "Latest Word on the Trail? I Take it Back":

[The White House] press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name . . . .Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president's top strategists, grudgingly agree. After the interviews, they review their notes, check their tape recorders and send in the juiciest sound bites for review. . . . Now, with a millisecond Twitter news cycle and an unforgiving, gaffe-obsessed media culture, politicians and their advisers are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations.

To be sure, we all want to be quoted accurately but that is very different from allowing sources to delete substantive remarks. We should be concerned about that practice in a democracy, and we should expect reporters to resist this kind of control. The major media should take the lead in resisting the practice of letting sources edit what they said. Censorship and news control are exactly what the terms mean whether the media is complicit or not, and such a cozy relationship between media and public officials or political campaigns is not in the interest of a free press or an open society and therefore needs to be resisted.

We are reminded that the newsgathering media, including Michael Lewis, often gets information by cozying up to potential sources, as much as the officials depend on using reporters to get out information that they want in circulation. Allowing quotes to be edited is not in the interest of truth or transparency.

Nor is quoting "senior government officials" or "senior campaign officials," and that is another ethical issue raised by Lewis's Vanity Fair article, namely the use anonymous sources. Was it necessary for him to hide the identity of those commenting on the President's behavior in a March 15, 2011 meeting on Libya with such descriptions as "one of the participants at the meeting," "says one participant," "says another person at the meeting," "says one witness," and "recalls one eyewitness"? After all, what Lewis is describing is not top security information or the President's particular views, but human responses to the President's behavior. Lewis has already identified the "principals" attending the meeting. Surely, who is saying what among senior advisors and their top assistant about how Obama functions at a meeting on a major issue would be interesting. Nor does Lewis make clear, too, whether he sat in on the entire meeting or just a small section of it or on a subsequent meeting a few hours later.

In citing unidentified sources and letting the White House edit his quotations, the Lewis article reminds us that anonymous sources often provide information because of his or her self-interest. Anonymous sourcing opens the gates for the reporter and editor to find someone who agrees with their own opinions. Often reporters and officials use one another in a complicit relationship where truth takes a back seat to convenience. Officials get their views out, reporters get a scoop. This practice has a long history, dating back to a time when major columnists, most newspapers, TV networks, and the administration had a less adversarial relationship. Thus American Presidents used major newspaper columnists like James Reston, Arthur Krock, Walter Lippmann, and the Alsops to release important information, and these columnists did not necessarily attribute their source to the President.

Many times there is no reason not to identify a source and if she or he insists on anonymity, the story should be written without quotations. An exception can be made if attribution would put someone's life in danger; for example, were a senior official in Syria, who might be contemplating defection, identified, the result would be that he and perhaps his family would be put to death. To be sure, whistle blowers and national security need to be protected, but the media needs be careful not to provide too large an umbrella.

While it is often in their own interest to break stories and to win recognition if not journalistic prizes, reporters need to be very skeptical of talkative sources that give them privileged information. All too often, the media, including the major newspapers as well as the networks and cable TV provide airtime for unidentified officials who press their agendas. Often the media allows disinformation to pose as information because it doesn't take the time to examine what is being said. I need not remind New York Times readers that is how Judith Miller, who claimed access to high-level sources, reported on the existence of WMD's in Iraq, a story that had no foundation in fact.

As the third Public Editor of the Times, Clark Hoyt told me:

"I think there have been... notable occasions when the Times has been less than properly skeptical of official government information, and the most famous, relatively recent example is the war in Iraq... You always have to fear that there is a degree of [a reporter's] self-correction goes on out of fear of compromising that access in some way" (May 19, 2010).

Indeed, Bill Keller wrote in a June 23, 2005 memo that the use of anonymous sources "is not routine but an exception," and that reporters need to know "how the sources know what they know, what motivated them to share information, and why they are entitled to anonymity." And of course the same standard should apply to submitting quotes for review. The reporter should also make clear when he is skeptical about the reason for editing quotations if he agrees to this procedure at all.

What needs to happen more is for journalists to dig for information rather than -- as is sometimes the case -- trade unsubstantiated or partial information and even gossip back and forth between themselves and government and congressional personnel, and that information then appears without attribution as news. Often in Washington D.C. members of these groups live next door to one another and go to the same dinner parties and send their children to the same schools.

What has changed at the Times since the Judith Miller fiasco is that the reporter needs to share anonymous sources with the editors, but is that enough to prevent overuse? I have seen on occasion anonymous sourcing used in the Times in sports and business articles and even an article about a Brooklyn real estate dealer and doubted whether it was necessary.

Put baldly, those sources who do not want to speak for attribution and/or edit their own quotations often speak for their own purposes and deliberately try to mislead the media. As Lord Northcliffe, owner of the London Times and Daily Mail once remarked, "News is what someone, somewhere is trying to suppress. The rest is advertising," and these anonymous sources and those who want to take back what they said are usually simply advertising their point of view, often out of self-interest. Without sources hiding behind vague titles and taking back what they said, we would have less advertising and more informative and truthful news.

Author of the recently published Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009 (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at drs6@cornell.eduand can be followed on twitter at