(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.