Letter to Washington Post ombudsman

September 6, 2005

Michael Getler
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street NW
Washington, DC 20071

Dear Mr. Getler:

I am writing to express my deep concern over the recent use of a dishonest anonymous source by The Washington Post. As you have surely become aware, on September 4, the Post printed an article titled “Many Evacuated, but Thousands Still Waiting; White House Shifts Blame to State and Local Officials.” In the article, an anonymous “senior Bush official” sought to dismiss criticism of the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina by contending falsely that "[a]s of Saturday [September 3], [Louisiana Gov. Kathleen] Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency."

The Post was responsible enough to print a correction to the original article, pointing out that, in fact, Blanco declared a state of emergency on Friday, August 26 -- before the hurricane made landfall -- though the correction did not note that the error occurred because the Post relied on a “senior Bush official” who provided false information. Nonetheless, I believe this incident raises serious questions the Post needs to address.

The use of anonymous sources has come under attack from many quarters in recent weeks. We at Media Matters for America are not among those who contend that anonymous sources should never be used. To the contrary, we fully understand that anonymous sources are often vital to uncovering stories that those with power do not want told.

In this case, however, the Post reporter's reliance on an anonymous source defies reason. The statement made by the anonymous source was an assertion of fact that could have been easily refuted. Blanco's declaration was widely reported at the time it was made, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune reprinted an August 27 letter from Blanco to President Bush in which she noted that she had declared the state of emergency. That the Post allowed itself to be the conduit by which “a senior Bush official” delivered a political attack -- the accuracy of which could have been determined quickly and on the record -- is unconscionable.

It is bad enough that the paper quoted an anonymous “source” spinning, but, in this case, the source was, put simply, lying. The Post's correction is far from adequate. It would seem to us that if your newspaper discovers that an anonymous source blatantly lied to one of your reporters, the implied contract of the source-journalist relationship has been broken, and the source has forfeited his or her right to anonymity. Further, the fact that a “senior Bush official” is lying in an apparent effort to blunt criticism of the Bush administration seems extremely newsworthy -- the sort of information that should be the topic of an article in your newspaper, not merely hinted at in a two-sentence correction.

Reporters might protest that a policy of “outing” dishonest sources would make others less likely to talk in the future. But are your readers' interests best served by the reporter-source relationship as it exists now? If this incident is any indication, the answer seems to be no. The “senior Bush official” will suffer no consequences and will be free to spin, smear, and lie again in the pages of the Post or other news outlets -- all without revealing his or her identity.

What, precisely, is the Post's policy on anonymous sources who abuse the protection offered by your newspaper's reporters? Does a policy even exist? If not, we would encourage you to create one. After all, sources are not the only ones who need protection; the Post's readers do as well.


David Brock
President and CEO
Media Matters for America