Saturday, November 8, 2008

Palin Pile-On: Is Using Unnamed Sources Fair, or Is It Just Gossip?

FOX's Carl Cameron's report on "The O'Reilly Factor" has opened some questions about the inner workings of the McCain organization, especially relating to Gov. Sarah Palin and a possible ugly rift within the campaign. But it also gives pause to the use of unnamed sources. Here's the segment:



After that was aired, Greta Van Susteren talked to Politico's Alex Burns about this issue, defending Palin:



The New York Times’s Elisabeth Bumiller wrote on the rift as well. The story uses a number of unnamed sources, but also talks about the backlash of the reports:

Advisers in the McCain campaign, in suggesting that Palin advisors had been leaking damaging information about the McCain campaign to the news media, said they were particularly suspicious of Randy Scheunemann, Mr. McCain’s top foreign policy aide who had a central role in preparing Ms. Palin for the vice-presidential debate.

As a result, two senior members of the McCain campaign said on Wednesday that Mr. Scheunemann had been fired from the campaign in its final days. But Rick Davis, the McCain campaign manager, and Mr. Salter, one of Mr. McCain’s closest advisers, said Wednesday that Mr. Scheunemann had in fact not been dismissed. Mr. Scheunemann, who picked up the phone in his office at McCain campaign headquarters on Wednesday afternoon, responded that “anybody who says I was fired is either lying or delusional or a whack job.”

Newsweek’s web election recap also is mostly based on anonymous comments from campaign advisers, but it takes a different tone and and concentrates on ligitimate subject matters. Although at one point it does touch on Palin's towel incident.

The disclosures are among many revealed in "How He Did It, 2008," the latest installment in NEWSWEEK's Special Election Project, which was first published in 1984. As in the previous editions, "How He Did It, 2008" is an inside, behind-the-scenes account of the presidential election produced by a special team of reporters working for more than a year on an embargoed basis and detached from the weekly magazine and Newsweek.com. Everything the project team learns is kept confidential until the day after the polls close.

This is classic study in the use of unnamed sources and the problems that practice might cause. When journalists use an unnamed source, it's usually for the purpose of gaining some kind of information we couldn't receive on the record. Anonymous sources should only be used when we cannot report on information that is reliable and newsworthy otherwise.

So, the question becomes, are the Palin stories truly newsworthy? Or is it rather a case of CYA by the McCain staff? In my book, the Palin reports are pure gossip, and mean-spirited gossip at that. She couldn't name the countries in NAFTA? I'd bet 98 percent of Americans couldn't. She didn't know Africa was a continent? Well, that is a bit embarrassing, but once again, unfortunately we are a nation of geography-ignorant people. Did she come out of her bathroom in a towel? Most people do after a shower. There might have been an explanation. She might have not known the aides were there, and then it would be the aides' fault, not hers. But we don't know, because anonymous sources only give one side of a story.

The Newsweek article, on the other hand, sticks to issues. Here's a taste of its writing:
The Obama campaign was provided with reports from the Secret Service showing a sharp and disturbing increase in threats to Obama in September and early October, at the same time that many crowds at Palin rallies became more frenzied. Michelle Obama was shaken by the vituperative crowds and the hot rhetoric from the GOP candidates. "Why would they try to make people hate us?" Michelle asked a top campaign aide.

On the Sunday night before the last debate, McCain's core group of advisers—Steve Schmidt, Rick Davis, adman Fred Davis, strategist Greg Strimple, pollster Bill McInturff and strategy director Sarah Simmons—met to decide whether to tell McCain that the race was effectively over, that he no longer had a chance to win. The consensus in the room was no, not yet, not while he still had "a pulse."

The Obama campaign's New Media experts created a computer program that would allow a "flusher"—the term for a volunteer who rounds up nonvoters on Election Day—to know exactly who had, and had not, voted in real time. They dubbed it Project Houdini, because of the way names disappear off the list instantly once people are identified as they wait in line at their local polling station.

Palin launched her attack on Obama's association with William Ayers, the former Weather Underground bomber, before the campaign had finalized a plan to raise the issue. McCain's advisers were working on a strategy that they hoped to unveil the following week, but McCain had not signed off on it, and top adviser Mark Salter was resisting.

The point is that the Palin stories serve no purpose other than to smear someone and provide giggles. It's especially distasteful to kick someone when they are down. And she is a person who has been kicked around enough in the past few months, whether it is her email account being hacked or attacks on her family.

This certainly is not one of our finest moments in journalism. Are we supposed to feel proud of reporting like this? It's this type of reporting that makes our readers and viewers despise us at times.

1 comment:

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