My Country for a Source


The administration is attacking Seymour Hersh's latest New Yorker article, which claims, among other things, that Israel sought a green light from Washington prior to taking military action against Hezbollah.The administration's sharply worded denial -- as seen in this response to the Los Angeles Times -- attacks Hersh's credibility and his use of anonymous sources:

"The piece abounds in fictions," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said in an e-mailed response to a request for comment. He also assailed reporter Seymour M. Hersh's use of unnamed sources, saying it was "hard to imagine that the story would meet any major news organization's standards for sourcing and verification."
In fact, the New Yorker article does have a more than its healthy share of anonymous sources, such as "former diplomat," "consultant," and the ever-in-demand "expert in Middle East Affairs" (which these days, could be just about anyone in Washington). In some cases, these sources are providing subjective information, describing people's thoughts and motivations. In other words, all things hard to verify. For example:

According to a Middle East expert with knowledge of the current thinking of both the Israeli and the U.S. governments, Israel had devised a plan for attacking Hezbollahand shared it with Bush Administration officialswell before the July 12th kidnappings. "It's not that the Israelis had a trap that Hezbollah walked into," he said, "but there was a strong feeling in the White House that sooner or later the Israelis were going to do it."
What qualifies someone as having "knowledge of current thinking" of two different governments? How much expertise does it take to be an expert?This extensive use of anonymous sources should always raise questions with readers. But how fair is the administration's response? Background interviews are a mainstay of government agencies these days. The Pentagon, in particular, regularly sets up interviews that are on background (thus attributable only to "a senior defense official" or otherwise negotiated title). Worse, readers have no way of knowing whether such interviews are such officially sanctioned "background interviews" or whether they really represent senior officials going around protocol to speak anonymously to trusted reporters.Ultimately, the readers are left to determine the credibility they attribute to a journalist's anonymous sources. In this respect, Hersh is one step ahead of the administration. Readers are likely to give the anonymous sources of Hersh--who has a solid track record reporting on issues such as Abu Ghraibthe benefit of the doubt.-- Sharon Weinberger
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