It may come as a surprise to those cynical about the newspaper business to learn that we who buy ink by the barrel have no interest in stories that are later proven to be full of holes—or cut from whole cloth. Credibility, like virginity, is hard to get back once you’ve lost it.
One way to lose credibility is to practice checkbook journalism, like The National Enquirer—and they’re not alone. It’s easy to get information if you’re willing to pay for it, but if money is the incentive, you may or may not get the truth. You may only get a source you can blame later for mistakes.
Most newspapers, this one included, don’t do business that way. We depend on people coming forward, sometimes at great risk to themselves, and telling us things. Sometimes those people are in law enforcement.
That is how the world found out about the Olympic bribery scandal. It started with a single anonymous letter to a local TV news reporter, Chris Vanocur. Do we need to mention Watergate? The Pentagon Papers? The list is pretty long.
Now, two of the most knowledgeable people in this state about the value of confidential sources to journalism are doing their best to shut people up. Mayor Rocky Anderson and attorney Randy Dryer, both of whom have represented this newspaper, have each taken steps that may discourage local law enforcement from talking to the press.
Anderson did so on April 29, when he demanded from Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse a report by May 19 fingering anyone in his department who might have given information about the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case to two Salt Lake Tribune reporters. Dryer followed suit three days later with essentially the same demand, and backed it with a not-so-veiled threat of legal action.
“[The Smarts],” said Dryer, “want to let those who leak information know that there is some risk attached,” and added to the journalism community: “It’s going to make all of your jobs harder.”
Despite Dryer’s and Anderson’s threats, County Attorney Dave Yocom announced Tuesday that none of the leaks came from within the Salt Lake City PD, although they likely did come from other law enforcement sources. He also said it was unlikely the leaks were illegal.
Sometimes people lie, and sometimes evidence is manipulated to suggest a preferred conclusion. One lesson in the Smart case is that our obligation as journalists to vet tips and leaks is not diminished because the source may seem reliable.
The mistakes of the two Trib reporters had terrible consequences for the Smart family, to which we are all sensitive. But the reaction against confidential sources grows from and feeds the greater climate of fear and information suppression that has gripped this country in the last year and a half. When sources dry up, the public’s right to know goes with it. For all its faults, the press remains an essential watchdog over democratic institutions.
We respect Dryer and Anderson for their appreciation of the job journalists have to do. But in appealing to their clients and constituents in this case, their work may have a lasting negative effect on the larger issues involved. It is unworthy of these two noted First Amendment experts to try to strong-arm and intimidate potential sources. They should put away the sabers, or at least stop rattling them.