Your guide to reading The New York Times

The New York Times has been criticized in the past for its use of anonymous sources. There was the debacle with the anonymous government officials who said Saddam was on a worldwide quest to build an atomic bomb. Of course, we all know that turned out not to be true, but it lent the claim enormous credibility when Dick Cheney went on Meet the Press, held up The Times and got to point at a juicy headline that mirrored his claim.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: There's a story in The New York Times this morning-this is-I don't-and I want to attribute The Times. I don't want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it's now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge. And the centrifuge is required to take low-grade uranium and enhance it into highly enriched uranium, which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.

It's not me saying this! It's your precious liberal rag, The Times! Well, it worked. And The Times didn't stop using anonymous sources, despite having learned (or not-learned) one of the most expensive lessons in the history of print media: don't trust government officials to tell the truth.

We return to the use of anonymous sources in today's NYT. Certain government officials (again, we don't know who they are,) who quite possibly have a vested interest in covering their own complicity in the implementation of torture, claim there was total unanimity in the Justice Department that these tactics were legal.

The claim isn't true because there wasn't a unanimous consensus. The former Deputy Attorney General, Jim Comey, had grave reservations about the torture program as copiously documented by Marcy Wheeler. One could assume that certain government officials might benefit greatly from creating the illusion that the Justice department was totally 100% behind the program so all parties can avoid taking the fall for breaking the law. So maybe -- just maybe -- they'd lie to save their necks.

But that doesn't matter to the paper of record. What matters is that government officials are making anonymous, baseless claims once again, and somebody's got to print that stuff!

For less savvy readers, NYT articles can be confusing. What do you believe, what should you not believe? Here's a helpful guide for any newbie to the world of anonymous government sources. We'll use today's article from The Times as an example.

Previously undisclosed Justice Department e-mail messages, interviews and newly declassified documents show that some of the lawyers, including James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general who argued repeatedly that the United States would regret using harsh methods, went along with a 2005 legal opinion asserting that the techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency were lawful.

A curious reader may wonder: who sent these emails to The Times? Surely, that's an important detail because whoever sent them may have an interest in absolving their own guilt. Alas, the source is anonymous. The best thing to do is sit back, smile, and just hope the anonymous government officials are telling the truth. That's what The Times does even though the strategy appears to violate its own policy, which states that "the use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy."

Even if The Times felt they needed to protect their source's identity that surely wouldn't then stop serious journalists from critically evaluating the memos to see that Comey had reservations about the program. Just because they protect their source's identity doesn't mean that they then have to repeat the claim that the Justice Department was united behind the legality of torture. Reprinting claims from state officials without checking the validity of those claims isn't journalism, it's propaganda.

Journalists rebut that they need to use anonymous sources to protect their access to high-ranking government officials, but what they fail to examine is the quality of their sources' information. The US has already gone to war over claims made by anonymous sources, do we now need to absolve those officials of their crimes by again relying on their use?

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.