The New York Times Public Editor points out that the Times doesn’t always follow its internal guidelines on not publishing anonymous personal allegations. If the subject is accused of a crime, the chances are far greater:
It was no surprise that the case against Robert Joel Halderman, accused of blackmailing David Letterman, involved money and sex, a former colleague at CBS said. Halderman “lived on the edge” and had “a bit of a checkered love life.”
Was it proper for The Times to report such statements from people who would not stand behind them? The paper has a policy that says anonymous sources should not be used lightly, but as a last resort, and should not be allowed to engage in personal attack or speculation. These tidbits seemed at best like gossip and at worst unfair suggestions of motive or guilt.
Reece Pendleton, a reader from Chicago, asked “why on earth” The Times would grant anonymity to someone making “prejudicial comments — nothing more than smears” about Clark, who had been identified as a “person of interest” but had not yet been charged. The paper just wanted to “spice up” the story, he thought. Ellen Comisar, a former Times graphics editor who lives in Rochester, N.Y., wondered “what possible justification could there have been” for the anonymous comments about Halderman.
It is a common scenario: A sensational crime is committed or alleged, and reporters — nine of them on the Annie Le story — scramble to learn everything they can about a suspect. They aim for a balanced portrait, but readers can take comments that a person was hard to get along with or “lived on the edge” as not-so-subtle clues to the question they really wonder about: Did he do it?
When the comments are anonymous, the potential unfairness can be compounded because readers have no way to evaluate the motives or credibility of those doing the talking. Pendleton, for example, wondered if the remarks about Clark could have been payback by a co-worker for a past run-in.
One NY Times reporter and editor defended their anonymous allegation by arguing they were doing the reader a service in conveying this information. It’s an understandable argument.
But, I would ask whether the paper gains more in releasing that anonymous information or adhering to its own guidelines — rules that were created so that the paper would gain credibility in its fair treatment of all the people it covers.
I’ll go with the latter.