The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Never Burn a Source

Posted on | May 24, 2011 | 34 Comments

Nothing is more essential to a newsman’s craft than trust. If your sources can’t trust you to keep a secret, they’re not going to tell you everything you need to know, because sometimes you need to know more than you can actually report. Therefore, to breach confidentiality — to burn a source by reporting what were supposed to be off-the-record conversations — is to destroy the kind of trust that is necessary to the practice of your trade.

At the Daily Caller, Jonathan Strong has done something vaguely akin to burning a source: He published confidential Twitter direct messages between Sarah Palin spokeswoman Rebecca Mansour and someone else.

We learn from Ben Smith that the source for Strong’s “scoop” had previously tried to sell this information. Smith says he refused to pay, but wanted the scoop:

“Does Politico pay for exclusives? Cause I’m looking to sell. I have 122 direct messages from Sarah Palin staffer Rebecca Mansour,” the person emailed, eventually sending along sample direct messages identical to a couple the Caller posted. They were forwarded from the account of one improbably named Toki de la Vega, a contributor to some pro-Palin sites, though there was a man’s name attached to one of the tweets as well.
I responded with a counter-offer of lunch and “undying gratitude.”
“Sorry, Ben, but it’s going to take more than a happy meal and a hand shake to get me to betray someone’s confidence. Only freshly printed 100 dollar bills help me get over feelings of guilt,” wrote the emailer, who continued, “Would it violate some fake journalistic ethics and standards to get me in contact someone who does pay? I know that the thought of blogging about this is making your panties wet. The topics range from Chuck Hagel to Ricky Hollywood and everything else in between. It’s a f***ing blogger’s gold mine.”

Good Lord! If I went to press with every unguarded opinion expressed privately to me by political operatives, what untold havoc could I wreak? But that havoc would be short-lived, of course, because once a reporter burns a source, nobody would ever trust him again. Ed Morrissey writes:

Well, having been around a few election cycles, I can attest that every campaign likes to push negative information about their opponents.  I’ve probably received a couple of those types of messages already this morning, and I’m sure I’ll get more by the end of the day, too.  “Leaking damaging information” is what they do.  Being shocked by that, or even considering it news, is approaching Captain Louis Renault territory.

Agreed. And I will add that it has been observed by more than a few conservatives that the only time the Daily Caller ever seems to get a scoop, it is a scoop that damages conservatives. A reputation as a clearinghouse for intramural GOP backstabbing is not something I would covet.

Morrissey also accurately says that Rebecca Mansour made the mistake of trusting the wrong person. Henceforth, any campaign operative with a secret urge to dish dirt should send that dirt directly to me. Because I never burn a source.

And there are some “scoops” not worth having.

ADDENDUM: Let me add a little background, just so you know how I learned my craft.

More than 20 years ago, I was a sports editor for a small-town Georgia newspaper. One day during football season, I went out to interview a high-school coach to do a preview article about their upcoming game. The coach told me that the team was in trouble because one of their star players would be absent from the lineup Friday night.

He was reluctant to explain why, but finally said, “This is completely off the record, OK?” And I agreed.

A certain girl was pregnant and the coach’s star player was among the four or five possible fathers of her expected child. The girl’s father was extremely irate and had even threatened violence against the player. So the player was in hiding, and the coach had deemed it unwise to have the player either at practice or in Friday’s game, which might risk a very ugly confrontation, if not indeed attempted murder.

Also, the pregnant girl was white, and the star player was black, which added another explosive element to the Southern small-town drama.

Well, it was an amazing story and you can imagine the kind of fireworks that would have ensued had I reported the details divulged by the coach. But it was off-the-record, and so I reported that the star player would miss Friday’s game for “disciplinary reasons” without so much as a hint of what those reasons were. Given that it was a small town, many of the readers probably knew the backstory already, but it wasn’t the sort of thing they wanted to read in their local paper.

A small-town newsman is conscious that he is part of a community, towards which he is obliged to act the part of a reponsible citizen. I wish that more big-city reporters had the kind of formative experiences that I had in those small towns in Georgia. The world of journalism would be a better place for it.

UPDATE: Bryan Preston at PJ Tatler:

There is no news in the tweets: Mansour does what loyal political staff do, trashing those who trash the boss, dishing, being fierce. Not news, at least to anyone who has ever worked anywhere near politics since the advent of email.

Dan Riehl: “Some scumbag nobody decided to dish and Carlson’s rag didn’t have the class to say, no. Big surprise.”

UPDATE II: As to the motive — why somebody would have had it in for Rebecca Mansour — it appears that the leaked DMs came from a former contributor to Conservatives4Palin. So envy: Mansour had parlayed her blogger career into a full-time political job and this other C4P blogger resented Mansour’s success.

Pathetic. And Ace of Spades says Daily Caller is “apparently the publisher of last resort for desperate creeps looking to get paid a couple hundred dollars for tawdry email hacks about nobodies and about nothing.”


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