When Journalists Start Pursuing, Ethics Too Often Get Left Behind

Two decades ago, when I worked at the San Jose Mercury News in California, then-editor Jerry Ceppos sent a memo cautioning staff to limit its use of anonymous sources.

His point was one central to fair and honest journalism: Reporters, he wrote, should not quote sources who use the shield of anonymity to attack others on the paper's pages.

It was a good guideline, but one too often ignored when the journalism pack starts nipping at the heels of a big name caught in the high beams of breaking news. Such has been the case, once again, in the unremitting stream of stories spinning from the fascinating and titillating tale of sex, hubris and power surrounding now-former CIA Director David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, the author and ambitious mother of two with whom he had an affair.

Much of the reporting has been filled with factual detail. I loved, for example, the tidbit in Thursday's New York Times, that Jill Kelley, the Tampa Bay socialite who triggered the FBI investigation, has lost her privileges to enter MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa "with a wave" of her hand.

But a piece on the front page of the same day's Boston Globe, modeled another side of journalism -- the ugly practice of protecting anonymous cheap shots. The story allowed two professors at Harvard's Kennedy School, where Petraeus' biographer turned lover earned a master's degree, to denigrate her intelligence with impunity.

Here is an excerpt:

One of Broadwell's former professors at Harvard described her as a self-promoter who would routinely show up at office hours.

"It was very much, 'I'm here and you're going to know I'm here,' " said the professor, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of ongoing investigations. "She was not someone you would think of as a critical thinker. I don't remember anything about her as a student. I remember her as a personality."

Excuse me? The professor didn't want to be identified "because of the sensitivity of ongoing investigations?" In the U.S. government?

Seems like a bogus excuse to me. And just what was the professor's motive? In trying to discredit Broadwell as a student, was he (or she) also attempting to distance the hallowed halls of Harvard's Kennedy School from a fallen alum?

None of these questions would be relevant had The Globe rejected such a flimsy pretext for anonymity.

Instead, however, the cheap shots continued: "The professor said when Petraeus chose Broadwell to write his biography, there was shock among the national security faculty at Harvard because 'she just didn't have the background -- the academic background, the national security background, or the writing background.'"

Then The Globe turned to anonymous professor No. 2, giving yet another free pass of anonymity to hide behind supposedly because this professor was not "authorized" to speak to the press.

Here are this professor's words:

"She was a lot of talk but not a lot of follow-through," said the second professor, who described Broadwell's struggle to deliver on the biography as "deeply embarrassing" to the Kennedy School.

One has to wonder: If Paula Broadwell was really such a loser, why did the Kennedy School admit her in the first place? And how on earth, given the distain these professors now express, did Harvard invite her back to speak as a "distinguished alumna," as the article reports, after she published her book, "All In: The Education of General David Petraeus?"

It's important to note that these two anonymous professors represent themselves and not the official position of the Kennedy School. But one has to ask: Do some Kennedy School faculty consider a former student -- in this case Broadwell -- "one of us" when she succeeds, but someone to be marginalized at best when she fails?

That said, it is The Globe's decision to publish these nasty putdowns anonymously that bothers me more. This was not by any stretch information the public needs to know. It's spiteful gossip, pure and simple.

So, while just about every news organization has relied on anonymous leaks to advance aspects of the Petraeus investigation that potentially inform public debate, that doesn't make every anonymous comment worth repeating.

Perhaps reporters should follow the advice of the authors of "Doing Ethics in Journalism," a book that helps guide young reporters through ethical decision-making. Its authors suggest that among the questions reporters might ask themselves before taking apart the misdeeds of others is how they (the reporters) would want to be treated if the tables were turned. Surely part of that answer would be: "I'd like to be able to know who my accusers are."

Whatever her foibles, Paula Broadwell deserves no less.