How Much Do New York Times Reporters Use Anonymous Sources?

Yves here. Blunden’s analysis is timely, given that the CIA is being sued over its policy of selective disclosure to reporters. An overview from the Federation of American Scientists website:

FOIA requester Adam Johnson had obtained CIA emails sent to various members of the press including some that were redacted as classified. How, he wondered, could the CIA give information to uncleared reporters — in this case Siobhan Gorman (then) of the Wall Street Journal, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, and Scott Shane of the New York Times — and yet refuse to give it to him? In an effort to discover the secret messages, he filed a FOIA lawsuit.

His question is a good one, said Chief Judge Colleen MacMahon of the Southern District of New York in a court order last month. “The issue is whether the CIA waived its right to rely on otherwise applicable exemptions to FOIA disclosure by admittedly disclosing information selectively to one particular reporter [or three].”

“In this case, CIA voluntarily disclosed to outsiders information that it had a perfect right to keep private,” she wrote. “There is absolutely no statutory provision that authorizes limited disclosure of otherwise classified information to anyone, including ‘trusted reporters,’ for any purpose, including the protection of CIA sources and methods that might otherwise be outed. The fact that the reporters might not have printed what was disclosed to them has no logical or legal impact on the waiver analysis, because the only fact relevant to waiver analysis is: Did the CIA do something that worked a waiver of a right it otherwise had?”

Judge MacMahon therefore ordered CIA to prepare a more rigorous justification of its legal position. It was filed by the government yesterday.

The FAS article also summarizes the CIA’s response.

Bluden’s post links to an important story by Carl Bernstein published by Rolling Stone in 1977, The CIA and the Media. If you haven’t come across it before, this is a must read.

By Bill Blunden

It’s generally understood that newspaper reporters leverage information provided by confidential sources to tell readers about what’s going on inside the Beltway. Stories falling under the rubric of national security are a classic example. The upper tiers of D.C. policymaking are steeped in official secrecy, making off-the-record comments a staple for correspondents. But to what extent is this tool actually applied in practice?

Let’s conduct an analysis using the New York Times as a case study. Walking point in the domain of national security is columnist David Sanger, who has been with the Times for decades. In 2017 Sanger either helped author, or contributed to, around 150 stories. A review of Sanger’s work during 2017 found that approximately half explicitly mentions unnamed sources. The basic stylistic indicators are fairly consistent. For example, Sanger and his colleagues mention “intelligence officials,” “administration officials,” and “military officials” who are “not authorized to publicly discuss” certain topics, but prefer to speak “privately,” or “on the condition of anonymity,” due to “fear of reprisals.”

The bulk of this subset of stories dealt mainly with North Korea, cyber-attacks, and nuclear weapons. Specifically, around fifty percent of the articles which mentioned an anonymous source focused on North Korea. Roughly twenty percent discussed cyber-attacks and a little over ten percent of the articles touched on nuclear weapons. Naturally there was crossover between these three categories. Reports with unnamed sources regarding Russia, Iran, and the National Security Agency also appeared albeit with less regularity.    

This whole business, of quoting unidentified officials may come across as entirely reasonable. Is it really a big deal? Don’t readers benefit from having additional information?

What’s important to remember is that the practice of anonymously citing establishment insiders represents only one side of an informal arrangement. That is, officials possessing confidential information often expect something in return for their insights. High-level sources are keenly aware that exclusive stories can bolster a paper’s reputation, not to mention attract readers and advertisers. Insiders may wish to wield their relationship with the press to run a victory lap, undercut an institutional rival, test the public’s response to policy proposals, or sideline a breaking story. Whistleblowers offering government secrets without strings are in the minority.

For example, the intelligence community’s enduring links to the media are well documented. In the final days of 1977, well after the Church Committee and the Pike Committee closed their investigations, the New York Times published a whole series of articles on the CIA’s worldwide propaganda network. These reports were corroborated at the time by other investigators, like Carl Bernstein, who unearthed a network of more than 400 American reporters who covertly performed work on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency.    

While readers might be able discern anonymous sources in print they seldom realize the extent to which unspoken agreements have been cemented to satisfy sources, advertisers, and allies. How many stories have been blocked? How many times have certain subjects received special attention? How many favors have been called in by powerful interests with an agenda? Only the editors and publishers know the whole truth. Hence the importance of adversarial journalism, and the public’s recognition of which outlets have demonstrated a solid track record of rigorously practicing it, and which outlets have not.  

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  1. Carolinian

    Re operation mockingbird–perhaps the big diff between then and now is that the press is no longer even coy about their relationship with the “deep state.” After all the owner of the Post is in an open business relationship with the CIA. If we want press reform it will have to be from the bottom up as it was in the sixties and seventies. Which means it may take another blunder as great as Vietnam to turn significant public opinion against the MIC. TPTB are working on it….

  2. simjam

    Most journalists employed by corporate media seem to share the same national security narrative. They seem to take their cues largely from the owners. This trend has only gotten worse over the years. I have been waiting (for years) for one courageous journalists to speak out on the pressures to follow the accepted perspective.

    Also, I wonder to what degree the IC helps to subsidize the media owners. In other words, I would like to follow the money.

    1. Sid Finster

      My SWAG is that there are few or no direct subsidies, in the sense of “we’ll pay you to publish our copy!” but a MSM outlet that plays ball can expect plenty of “secret insider access” interviews and a few lucrative ad campaigns thrown their way as an incentive to cooperate.

  3. bean counter

    What makes this all the more glaring and ugly for the New York Times and Powerful News Media in general (whether Local or National) is the fact that they rarely, if ever, agree to use an anonymous source when it’s a little person being crushed by the powers that be. This, despite that little person offering to meet with them and provide documentation. I’ve had this happen on a personal level, in Silicon Valley.

    And speaking of little people who have significant news to relay, there are News Media who no longer even provide phone numbers, highly obscure them, or route the calls through what appears to be a Security Department, versus a reporter (had this happen with NBC Bay Area Local News). I can’t imagine what those who have lost, or never had, internet access feel when they try to attain some justice (given that Public Servants are notorious for ignoring and even abusing their constituents, instead of helping them).

    (It’s horrid enough that many faux non profits with obscenely paid VIPs – which claim to assist the increasingly impoverished and vulnerable – either have no phone numbers, or don’t answer the phone, or return calls.)

  4. time2wakeupnow

    Is there any remaining doubt that most of these permanent state ‘agencies’ regularly use their preferred media organs (New York Times, Washington Post..etc.) as efficient and compliant platforms to effectively distribute their endless campaigns of disinformation and subterfuge?

    If anyone still relies on a publication like the NYT for independent (non-state) information, then they will probably end up just as ill informed as someone that relies on Fox, CNN, Politico, etc., but usually with a different spin on whatever disinformation premise a state power agency might be promoting at a given time.

    Noam Chomsky once said that he was able to glean quite a bit of very useful information from some of the state propaganda organs like the NYT, but mostly due of what they had decided to promote, how, and who (which reporter) promoted it, and what actual relevant information (if any) was either buried deep in the piece, or entirely omitted altogether.

    Anyone wanting to know what the CIA, NSA, or The State Department thinks, or what ‘policies’ they intend to implement, just pickup a copy of this mornings NYT, or go to and it will be almost always be their the lead off story.

    Pravda on the Potomac & Izvestia on the Hudson indeed!


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