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Who Are The Anonymous Sources In DC Journalism?

October 25, 2013

By Lt. Col. Robert Bateman

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

I was sitting in a coffee house on K Street when I got my first real insight into journalism as it is practiced in Washington, DC. Sitting across from me was a reporter from a major newspaper. We knew each other casually at that point, as he had reported on an earlier military-history-media controversy in which I had been involved. (Note: Link is to the controversy, not to the reporter I am talking about.) Unlike a lot of my peers, I did not have a fear or distaste for reporters. My peers had been taught to dislike reporters as a hangover from Vietnam, and their distaste also partially stemmed from the fact that few saw the truth of the problem of military-media relations.

The truth is that historically the military and the media have not gotten along because they are brothers, and there is no fight worse than one between brothers. Brothers know just where to punch, what hurts the most, and how to cause lasting damage. But the thing is that the reason they know all of this is because they are so close, and they are so much alike.

With journalism and the military the similarities often outweigh the differences.

Both professions are filled with idealists. Both professions are stuffed with people who truly and honestly believe that they are the defenders of the American Dream. They are the ones who protect the rights of all Americans through their selfless (and often low-paying) labors. And both of them are right, although they come at the issue from 90-degree separations, of course. Inevitably that leads to collisions. But for me that was okay. I am large, I contain multitudes, and so had no intellectual problem reconciling the two. But what this reporter, then a person, now a friend, asked me that day gave me an insider’s view which I had not anticipated.

It was just about this time of year, but the year was 2001 when this conversation took place. That year I was on a fellowship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC think-tank. Obviously, in the prior month, things had changed for all of us. Now this reporter, who knew me for my writing and academic material and knew that I am a US Army Strategist, wanted to talk to me about upcoming operations.

“WHOA!” I said, “Hold on there. No. Look Zaphod*, you know I can’t talk about stuff like that, even if I had a clue about anything like that. I’m not operational, I’m at a think-tank fercripesake. But even if I wasn’t, no.”

“Bob, it’s not a problem,” he replied, “I already know most of what is going down. How about I just quote you as, ‘A respected military strategist’ or, ‘A long-time professional military planner’?”

And then, at that moment, I had to put into deliberate practice for the first time the rule that I had given myself almost seven years earlier.

“No Zaphod. And here’s the rule. I like you as a person, and you’re interesting. And if you ever need any help on the historical background of some story you are working on, or you want a historian’s perspective, I am your dude. But I will always be quoted with my own name, and whichever set of my qualifications you want to use. But my own name. That’s how it works. As for the current stuff that I ever might work on, no, I don’t do that. Not for you, or anyone.”

In truth, “Zaphod” did know most of what was about to happen, and that day I certainly learned more from him than he did from me. He knew, roughly, the time, location, and purpose of the initial US incursion into Afghanistan which would happen just days later. I, on the other hand, did not know any of that. But that meeting got me to thinking about the DC world of journalism, what I had been offered, and what a similar offer might mean to somebody else.

Good reporters, the best reporters, use honey.

They seek out the angry, disaffected, or outraged, and offer them a willing and friendly ear. That is the honey. A young major, frustrated after years of beating his head against the system to try and correct some (often perceived, but sometimes real) wrong, is vulnerable to this. Somebody who will listen, pay attention, and ask intelligent questions without judgment is a balm to any human. Add in the “celebrity” of being able to read (anonymously) the words you spoke in, gasp, a major magazine or newspaper, and it is not difficult to see how this might be a draw.

This is how a tiny percentage of the “unnamed” sources** come in to play. On that October day Zaphod really did not need me as a source, what he actually needed me for was to be a “sacrificial.” In other words, if somebody went after him because of his pending story, I would have been the first layer of defense, protecting his real, more valuable sources. All he wanted me for was as a confirmation source to validate what he already knew. I did not begrudge him this attempt, I was already coming to understand that this was how the game worked in DC.

When I realized this, and pointed it out, Zaphod shrugged. We then had a nice lunch and thereafter — our relationship defined — we never had another moment like that. But the lesson stuck with me, and then I wondered, where were all these sources coming from? DC stories are stuffed with anonymous sources, and barring the obvious political plants, how could it be that so many “Senior Defense Official” and “Prominent Military Advocate” and “Senior military leader” types were cited without being named. It took me all of about seven months after I arrived in DC to figure it out. Read more in Esquire.

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