I don’t want Jeff Sessions deciding what we get to know about our government

Attorney General Jeff Sessions briefs reporters on leaks of classified material Friday, a week after President Donald Trump complained that Sessions was weak on preventing such disclosures.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions briefs reporters on leaks of classified material Friday, a week after President Donald Trump complained that Sessions was weak on preventing such disclosures. AP

Do you hate leaks, off-the-record reporting and anonymous sources? You’re not alone. But you’re missing the point. Journalism wouldn’t be journalism without people feeling free to talk.

The majority of serious or watchdog journalism begin with one of the above. A call, an email, a friend’s aside. Maybe even someone with an ax to grind.

“You didn’t get this from me...”

“How come you guys haven’t reported that...”

“Hey, did you know that the police are ...”

Sometimes the information comes from someone with an agenda. Sometimes it’s a news hound who recognizes a good story that needs to be reported. Sometimes it’s a couple tidbits that journalists hear, connecting dots that the sources don’t even realize add up to a story.

The fact is that reporters get tips and leaks all the time. We do get press releases and attend public events, often promoting a cause or an agenda. But that’s news that has been sanitized for the newsmaker’s protection.

But a leak or a tip or a tap on the shoulder is often about something that newsmakers want to keep quiet, news they’d rather people not know.

Ask yourself, reader: Do you want to know only the information the police, the politicians, the president want you to know? Of course not.

But Attorney General Jeff Sessions thinks he knows best. He thinks that subpoenaing reporters or giving government employees lie-detector tests will stop unflattering or annoying stories, or stories that he says threaten national security. The administration wants you to read the stories it authorizes (or, in many cases, the stories they choose to leak or share anonymously).

In a news conference Friday, Sessions said the White House is conducting a number of criminal investigations into leaks and is looking at making it easier to subpoena journalists. Sessions wouldn’t rule out prosecuting reporters.

Good journalists track down tips, get people to go on the record, follow the paper trail, find public records. Our primary mission is to find the truth and hold the powerful accountable. In the vast majority of cases, our final stories do not have to rely on the unnamed source with which we began.

Our recent stories about the boat-builder who left customers high and dry, the transporting of Boise compost out of county, agriculture pollution, the purchase of Idaho forests by a pair of billionaire brothers in Texas, all started with sources who did not want to be in the story. Our reporters used that info as a starting point, not an end point.

Good journalists do sometimes attribute information to anonymous sources, once they’ve done their best to verify it with other sources, to vet it using their judgment and experience. For the Statesman, it’s a last option. Our reporters use unnamed sources rarely and only with the approval of an editor. And it’s almost always to protect someone who faces danger to themselves or their job. It’s intentionally a high bar.

The term “anonymous” is a bit of a misnomer, anyway. Reporters and editors almost always know the identity of the source, even if we choose to not share it with readers.

D.C. and political reporting is a little different, and you do see more stories with unnamed sources, including in the Statesman. The practice waxes and wanes, and right now it’s loose again. It’s overused in my view, but the number of leaks and anonymous sources from the Obama administration (which tried its own crackdown) and now President Trump come as the powers that be try to squeeze with a tighter grip.

This is how I judge stories with unnamed sources. If the reporter has multiple sources for the information, if it’s limited to critical details, if it is news that advances my understanding of the issue, then I am willing to accept less-than-ideal sourcing.

But if it’s unnamed and unknown sources offering attacks or harsh judgments that go beyond basic facts, then I am skeptical of the source and the journalist. That’s lazy or reckless reporting.

Our First Amendment freedoms can lead to excesses and abuses, by journalists and politicians and citizens (just check your Facebook feed). If I were Trump or Sessions, I’m sure I’d be frustrated by leaking and reporting that embarrassed the administration. But I don’t get the disconnect: It’s either legitimate leaks that the White House wants to plug, or it’s information that is fake. Can it be both?

Tough journalists have always used anonymous sources, to break news about the Vietnam War, Watergate and Idaho government. More stories than you will ever know start with a leak or with a source who wants to stay behind the scenes.

I don’t want the mayor or the governor or the president to decide what I need to know as a reader or who I can talk to as a journalist. And it’s up to readers and journalists, not a lie-detector-wielding attorney general, to decide whether such reporting withstands scrutiny.

Bill Manny is the Statesman’s community engagement editor; bmanny@idahostatesman.com; 208-377-6406; Twitter/Instagram: @whmanny