Monday, January 30, 2006

My anonymous news sources

As a retired journalist, I've had a professional interest in the recent furor over the media's use of anonymous news sources. The critics argue that the practice of using unnamed sources for information raises the question of factual credibility.

When I was still working, anonymous news sources came with the territory, and I obviously feel that the criticism is unwarranted.

For a decade during the 1950s and early 1960s, I covered the Pentagon for Business Week. Like other reporters, I cultivated officials who were willing to be interviewed as long as I did not quote them by name. None had political axes to grind, nor were there sinister motives involved. They were simply well-intentioned bureaucrats helping a struggling young reporter trying to do his job gathering information.

I never learned any state secrets, nor was I ever involved in disputes about what I wrote. A half-century later, no one should care who my anonymous news sources were. I can therefore safely reminisce about some experiences.

In three cases, a personal factor enabled me to gain the confidence of the source. For example, George Mahon, a Texas Democrat, then chairman of the House Military Appropriations Subcommittee, was intrigued to learn during an interview I had with him that my father had once owned a men's clothing store in Colorado City, a tiny town in Mahon's Texas Congressional district.

My father had been a traveling salesman in the South for many years. During the mid-1930s, he thought he saw an attractive opportunity for a retail business in Colorado City. The store was a failure, however, and my father retreated back to our home in New York, where my mother and I had been waiting to learn whether we would be pulling up stakes and moving to Texas.

The tale about my father and the possibility that I might have become his constituent created a personal bond of sorts between the Congressman and me. He became an invaluable and regular news source about the defense budget and military procurement, matters of special interest to Business Week

Another Texan, Robert Anderson, also became an important news source for me because of a personal connection. Before coming to Washington with the Eisenhower Administration, Anderson had managed the vast W.T. Waggoner oil and ranching properties in Texas. He was initially named Secretary of the Navy, then Deputy Defense Secretary, and Secretary of the Treasury in 1957.

As Deputy Defense Secretary under Charles Wilson, General Motors' former CEO, Anderson became the subject of a cover story that I was assigned to write. In preparing for an interview with Anderson,I learned that his home town was Vernon, Texas. More than a decade earlier, one of my best friends while serving in the Army was Ollie T. Youngblood, also a Vernon native.

Making small talk during my initial meeting with Anderson, I brought up Ollie's name. Anderson was interested to learn about my friendship with him because he knew the Youngblood family intimately. Again, I had established a personal link to a valuable news source who was always willing to see me even after the Business Week cover story was published.

In 1961, after the newly-elected President John F. Kennedy had named Robert S. McNamara, Ford Motor Co.'s CEO, to become Secretary of Defense, I was assigned to write a cover story about him. I had recently purchased a Mercury auto from a Washington dealer called Moore-Greer Motors, located on Connecticut Ave. near my apartment. I don't recall whether it was Mr. Moore or Mr. Greer, but I had read that one of them had been a high-ranking Ford Motor Co. executive before retiring to establish an auto dealership.

I called him and introduced myself as a customer. I asked him whether he would tell me what he knew about McNamara, explaining my cover story assignment. He was willing to be interviewed with the understanding that he would not be quoted by name in my article.

Moore or Greer--I still cannot remember which one was my source-- was a close friend of McNamara's and volunteered personal information about the new Defense Secretary that would not have been readily available elsewhere. I learned, for example,that the former Ford Motor Co. CEO preferred to live in Ann Arbor, Mich. because of its intellectual environment rather than in the posh Detroit suburbs where virtually all other auto industry big shots lived.

The contribution from McNamara's former colleague, now a Washington auto dealer, was an important ingredient in my piece. Of course, I never told McNamara that I had spoken to his friend.I later learned that McNamara was astonished that so much of his personal life, all of it quite innocent, was revealed in the article.

I never saw Mr. Moore or Mr. Greer again. But I did my best from then on to steer friends who were in the market for a new car to Moore-Greer Motors on Connecticut Ave.


Blogger The Jotter said...

Dear Octogenarian,
Thank you for this post. It helped me to understand a recent dreadful experience. I was involved with an event that made national news. I began to receive calls from press and media all over the country. On multiple occasions the caller would start rambling about themselves. Having read your experiences, I now believe that they were trying to hurtle into some semblance of a personal connection so as to pump me for information or get an "exclusive." Had they had your tact and intelligence, I might have become an anonymous source. Instead, I stopped taking their calls. Maybe I should introduce them to your blog. Thank you for keeping up with the writing. I've been reading it for days.

Thursday, February 02, 2006 10:56:00 PM  

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