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For the Record, Unnamed Sources Don't Cut It

Look, politicians have been using the press for their own devices since George Washington's administration, so to start getting too bent out of shape about it now, would be like throwing buckets of water at a five-alarm neighborhood fire.

Today, anyway, that's not going to stop me from opening up the spigot, and pouring cold water all over the hot air coming from no-names in Washington regarding the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner.

Most of the water, however, will be reserved for the working press that is carelessly repeating this shoddily sourced drivel, and presenting it as news.

Hopefully, I won't come off all wet ...

In the month or so that has followed the incident, politicians on both sides of the aisle have attacked and defended the way suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been handled, or mishandled, and interrogated.

It has turned into a classic case of political football.

Essentially, and in its most stripped-down form, the Republicans seem to be saying the Obama Administration has mishandled the way the suspect was treated and thus interrogated, and the Democrats have shot back that the Republicans are full of it.

Unsubstantiated claims and attacks, followed by an unsubstantiated defense - and the media willingly goes along with it, citing unnamed sources, senior, or otherwise that are being shoved down their throats by these political partisans.

We the readers and viewers are then to take it on faith that these unnamed ghosts are in a position to know what they are talking about.

Do Unnamed Sources Have a Place?

All this is not to completely discourage the use of unnamed sources as a reporting tool. Sometimes they are necessary. Too many times they are not.

Journalists simply don't work hard enough for attribution anymore. Why? Laziness, for one.

Two? I think it's mostly because the genie left the bottle a long time ago. To not go out with unnamed sources is to risk being scooped, and heaven forbid that should happen.

Much better to take the chance of being used and being WRONG, than to be late with copy.

Even more baffling is that it seems like the same unnamed sources are just passed around from one media outlet to the other. We can only take it on faith that these sources are individually verified by each media agency before being cited in their reporting.

I wish I were more confident that this was happening.

So what and where has all this reporting gotten us regarding the handling and interrogation of the alleged bomber?

Some random examples follow.

(We are not picking on any news agencies in particular, because they all seem to be blindly marching to the same unnamed drummers.)

CNN's offering Wednesday jumps right out in the first paragraph of its story about the bomber's alleged cooperation by saying:

Senior Obama administration officials revealed late Tuesday they've secretly gained the cooperation of family members of Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab to help get the Christmas Day airline bomb suspect talking.

Senior Obama administration officials, eh?

It takes 12 paragraphs before a named source, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), is even mentioned in this story.

And that would be it for all the named sources in the story.

The Associated Press, whose story has been picked up and used seemingly everywhere, including Fox News, leads its Tuesday story this way:

WASHINGTON - The Nigerian man accused of trying to use a bomb hidden in his underwear to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day has been cooperating with investigators since last week, discussing his contacts in Yemen and providing intelligence in multiple terrorism investigations, officials said Tuesday.

There are those officials again ...

Worse, it took AP all of two graphs to type this:

"Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's cooperation could prove to be a national security victory and a political vindication for President Barack Obama, who has been under fire from lawmakers who contend the administration botched the case by giving Abdulmutallab the right to remain silent, rather than interrogating him as a military prisoner."

Yes it "could" but that would depend on whether this unnamed official knows what the heck he or she is talking about. That's for AP to know, and you to take on faith.

Then there's this beauty from the BBC, which apparently is depending on its brethren in the States to have all the facts straight. Here is the BBC's first five graphs:


The Nigerian man suspected of trying to blow up a US plane on Christmas Day is now co-operating and providing "useful" information, US officials say.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had stopped talking to investigators but started again "last week", officials told US media.

Mr Abdulmutallab, 23, is accused of trying to blow up a flight to Detroit with a bomb hidden in his underwear.

He has denied a charge of attempting to murder 290 people.

The BBC's Steve Kingstone in Washington says that with Mr Abdulmutallab apparently talking again, officials say it is conceivable a plea bargain might be now reached.

The word 'officials' is used three times. Heck, it is even conceivable a plea bargain will be reached thanks to this 'useful' information!

Finally, The Washington Post frames its story with the political implications this case might have. By and large it's a well-sourced bit of inside baseball, but when it comes to the part of what really might be happening in the suspect's interrogation it repeats this:

Senior administration officials said Abdulmutallab is cooperating again.

And this:

A senior White House official said the administration is "confident that he is going to continue to cooperate," adding that the information "will be leveraged to the fullest extent."
Wait! There IS Somebody on the Record!

By now some of you might be saying, "Wait! FBI Director Robert Mueller testified on the record and on Capitol Hill of all places, that the suspect was giving up valuable information and intelligence to the agency!

"He is both in a position to know and on the record!"

To which I say: What in the world would you expect Mueller to say?!

That, in fact, the suspect is eating their lunch and providing absolutely nothing?! They completely botched the handling of the suspect?!

Mueller could well be telling the truth. But would you bet your life on it?

That the media is relying on all these unnamed sources to back up Mueller and the White House's claims is the stain that just won't go away on so much of the inside-the-Beltway reporting from Washington.

The politicians have the press right where they want them.

Is it any wonder that the public trusts the press less and less every day?

What if one reporting agency, and preferably a big one, said, "Uh-uh. I need a name before I can report and verify a single thing about your claims."

What if, indeed ...