'A Highly Reliable Source Said...'

A Washington Correspondent Tells How To Report, Read Official News

(Tony Day, a Nieman Fellow during the 1966-67 school year, "covers" official Washington. He wrote the following article for the Harvard Crimson last spring.)

This has been a bad season for Washington institutions. Jimmy Hoffa has gone to jail, the House has thrown out Adam Powell, and taxation without representation in the District of Columbia is on the ropes.

But the "anonymous informed source" yet endures, protected and nurtured by government and press alike.

This venerable institution is as arcane as the balance of payments; its rules are as precisely obscure as the contents of a diplomatic note. To the outsider it presents a blank wall, but to the insider--and the insiders number several thousand government officials, 1200 Washington reporters and numberless foreign governments--a working knowledge of the ways of the informed source adds zest to the reading of the daily newspaper.

If, for example, you read in the Saturday paper a broad discussion of American foreign policy that is attributed solely to "U.S. officials," you can be pretty sure the U.S. officials are--is--none other than the Secretary of State, for most Friday afternoons Dean Rusk meets for drinks and talk with 20 or 30 American, British and French reporters who cover the State Department.

A similar story in the Friday paper about military affairs, with similar attribution, carries the unmistakable marks of the Secretary of Defense: early on Thursday afternoons Robert McNamara meets with the Pentagon "regulars." (No drinks.)

Any day of the week you may read a story out of the State Department in which paragraphs are attributed alternately to Robert J. McCloskey, the able press officer for the department, and to "U.S. officials." You may be fairly certain that the U.S. officials is (are?) McCloskey himself, willing to say something, but unwilling to say it in his identifiable official capacity.

The phrase "White House officials" in a story presents more of a puzzle. Sometimes it is the White House press officer, currently George Christian; sometimes it is another one of the President's $30,000-a-year special assistants; once in a while it may actually be two of them.

How to Read the Paper

But these attributions--U.S. officials, White House sources--are the easy ones. The newspaper reader also encounters a large and voluble crew of authoritative sources, reliable authorities, analysts, associates of the Senator, friends of the Vice President, those who know and plain old informed sources. (Even cognoscenti once had a certain vogue.) With such an embarrassment of reliability, how do you know who it is upon whom you are relying? It is clear, for instance, that "a source" is not on a par with "the Highest Authority," but common sense is not always a good guide. You have to weigh the paper you read, the writer and the subject, and add a bit of divination.

Consider this selection from a recent column in the New York Times by James Reston, America's most influential reporter, and one of its best. Reston is discussing the controversy between Senator Robert Kennedy '40 and President Johnson over the sincerity of the American approach to negotiation in the war in Vietnam:

Everybody in the present controversy about Vietnam in Washington wanted to know whether Hanoi was asking for a temporary or a permanent ban on bombing as a condition of starting peace talks. There is reason for saying specifically, not only on the testimony of high officials here but on the word of other Governments that want peace talks urgently, that the Johnson Administration put precisely this point to Hanoi, and the answer was very discouraging.

The Hanoi answer was, unless the highest officials here and in the Western embassies are not telling the truh, that the North Vietnamese Government wanted a simple one-for-one agreement: that they would agree to talk and no more than that if Washington would agree to stop the bombing. Hanoi rejected a limited bombing pause on the specific ground that this would be an "ultimatum."

At this point, it is understood, President Johnson tried another tack: would Hanoi agree to talk merely about alking? Would they talk about the conditions of a cease-fire, or about limiting the war publicly or limiting it privately without admitting they were limiting it? The information here, not only from the Johnson Administration but from others that want negotiations, is that Hanoi said "no": there must be a promise of no bombing, unconditional negotiations meant no time limit on negoiations; if Washington would stop the bombing Hanoi would talk; no more than that. It was that simple.

It's fairly clear that Reston with his usual thoroughness talked to a number of people in the course of his search for the truth of the matter. It certainly looks as if he consulted the British ambassador, and possibly the Canadian and the French (though the phrase "Western embassies" may, like the use of "U.S. officials" for Dean Rusk, represent an attempt to obscure a single source by multiplication.) Reston obviously talked also to high American officials; probably, I think, to the President himself, to judge from Reston's use of the phrase "highest officials here' and the surefooted way he says, "at this point, it is understood, President Johnson took another tack . . ." Other candidates for Reston's sources in this piece are Rusk; Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach; Walt W. Rostow, special assistant to the President for national security affairs, and McNamara. As a general thing only guidance from men of this rank within the government would encourage Reston or any other reporter to write with such confidence about so sensitive a matter, although more easily than most reporters Reston can draw on trusted Presidential advisors outside the government like Dean Acheson and Clark Clifford.

Why Anonymity?

But why is it done? Why do the President and the Cabinet officers and the ambassadors talk to Reston anonymously? And why does Reston accept their information on their terms and write of it in such a nodd circumlocutory way? The questions apply to all Washington reporters, for Reston is but the pre-eminent practitioner of a common art.

From the point of view of the "authoritative sources," the answer is not hard. The system allows them to say things they want to say without being as accountable for them. Under the conventions of the informed sources they can float trial balloons, pass hints without revealing the whole hand, threaten without intimidating, defend without losing identity. Through this swift and fluid medium of exchange, the great of the country and the world--heads of state, prime ministers, presidents, cabinet ministers and the powerful bureaucrats -- can talk to each other, be understood--and yet not be held responsible. It is both a luxury and a necessity for men with power, and they all indulge it.

In the case of the Reston column, the President didn't want to dignify Kennedy's objections with a direct answer. so he and his Administration were happy to reply anonymously through the editorial page of the Times. The column served the second purpose, so closely is the Times read abroad, of telling Moscow, Peking and Hanoi just what the Administration was thinking--or at least just what the Administration wanted those capitals to think it was thinking.

There, for a newspaperman, lies the trouble with an informed source: you are never sure, no matter how careful your checks, that your information really is accurate. After all, an informed source can with impunity deny in public tomorrow what he told you yesterday in private.

Nevertheless, Reston was willing to serve the purposes of the Administration because, as he said later in the column, he believed that in this case he had got on to the truth, and so by printing it he was serving the public, too. Scores of Washington reporters work by the same principles every day. You would prefer your sources to speak for the record, but when they won't, you take it on their terms and try to be as honest about it as you can.

Reporters' attempts at candor in uncandid situations contribute to the peculiarities of style that afflict most "informed source" stories. American reporters are brought up in the "he said, she said" tradition of open quotes openly arrived at. American reporters are uneasy with the sweeping statements affected by Frenchmen and other foreigners; the average American newspaperman is constitutionally unable to write a sentence like "The future of NATO is threatened by the re-opening of the Schleswig-Holstein question" without pinning it on someone. Hence when the source is informed but anonymous, the writer casts about for substitutes for "he said, she said" and comes up with curiosities like "it was learned" or Reston's "it is understood."

On matters of style the reporter who gets a good story from a very good but anonymous source has the poet's problem; he has to tell it with such airs the reader knows he has a sword upstairs, and so a story out of Johnson City Tex., beginning "President Johnson is known to believe . . ." is translated by insiders as "President Johnson told me today. . ."

Should a clever reporter doubt the truth of what the President has just told him, he can avoid responsibility by writing "President Johnson wants it known he believes. . ." or "President Johnson is telling his callers that. . ."

From time to time candor fails even the most inventive reporter. The skeptical reader should know that the attribution of Richard Nixon's deepest thoughts to "the friends of Richard Nixon" is a cover for Nixon himself, insisted upon by Nixon.

The "Lindley Rule"

It should not be supposed that Washington reporters are only the victims of the system. On the contrary. Taking it as given, the Washington press has gone as far as the government in institutionalizing the informed source. There are several reporters' organizations which specialize in the "backgrounder," a lunch or dinner at which a source is first fed, then pumped. These events usually take place under the umbrella of the "Lindley Rule," an invention of Ernest K. Lindley, a former reporter now in the State Department. The Lindley Rule says that reporters may write what they hear on their own authority without attribution to U.S. officials or anyone else; if questioned, the reporters are to deny the backgrounder ever occurred.

It is this sort of arrangement that gives the most ordinary-looking reporter the Homeric breadth of vision that enables him with equal ease to write today of the copper economy of Chile and tomorrow about the prospects for the Republican Party in Mississippi.

The iron law governing the informed source system is the law of supply and demand. The more in demand the source, the less the reporter has to say about the conditions under which the news will be obtained. President Johnson was able to force whole herds of reporters to follow him around the White House grounds in the hot sun on the chance that he might drop something worth printing. And a brilliant young expert on Soviet affairs in the Intelligence and Research section of the State Department can extract a promise that even the pseudonym "analyst" will not be used to describe him as the source of the valuable information he provides. Both the President and the expert can command their prices.

Thus, in a curious way, anonymity is a Washington status symbol. I know a couple of run-of-the-mill Senators who have tried for years to get reporters to pin their own ascribed views to the high-sounding "associates of the Senator," but they just can't get any takers. The last Senator who demanded and got the cloak of anonymity as a matter of course was Lyndon Johnson. The only one who gets it regularly now is Robert Kennedy. You can tell whose stock is rising.