By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

An anonymous source steps forth and saves (most of) The Washington Post’s bacon

Photo (cc) 2005 by Shawn Zamechek

The danger in reporting a story based on anonymous sources — in this case, one anonymous source — is that if you later are proven wrong, you’re left twisting in the wind with no one to blame but yourself.

It is highly unusual for a source to emerge from hiding and deliver a semi-exoneration. So The Washington Post got lucky Tuesday when Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state in Georgia who was the anonymous source for a Post story that resulted in an embarrassing correction, went on the record and said the Post got the story more or less right after all.

In case you missed it, the Post had to correct a story by Amy Gardner reporting that Trump had called Georgia’s chief elections investigator, Frances Watson, and urged her to “find the fraud” and that she would be a “national hero” if she overturned the results of the presidential election in her state. A tape of the call emerged recently, and The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s quotes were somewhat less provocative than that. Wemple writes:

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Fuchs said, “I believe the story accurately reflected the investigator’s interpretation of the call. The only mistake here was in the direct quotes, and they should have been more of a summary.” Fuchs said that The Post disclosed her role in the story with her permission, and that she’d gotten the debriefing from the investigator — a direct report of hers — “shortly” after the call from Trump concluded.

“I think it’s pretty absurd for anybody to suggest that the president wasn’t urging the investigator to ‘find the fraud,’” Fuchs added, “These are quotes that [Watson] told me at the time.”

To be clear, what we’re talking about here is a secondary story — a follow-up to a more explosive report by Gardner about Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Georgia Brad Raffensperger in which he demanded that Raffensperger find enough votes to reverse the results. There was audio of that call, published on the Post’s website.

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So, a close call for the Post — but lessons to be learned that really shouldn’t have to be stated. You don’t use quotes from a single anonymous source, especially when that source may have been second-hand. If you’re absolutely confident of your reporting, treat those quotes as a “summary,” as Fuchs suggested, rather than using quotation marks.

And understand that in this hypercharged political environment, you will be accused of making up fake news about Trump if you don’t get it 100% right. In this case, 95% isn’t good enough.

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  1. pauljbass

    Just a quibble — not sure why you conclude that this was a “close call.” I would argue that the rest of your analysis shows this was a failure, period. A consequential You spell out the way it went wrong. (And as a reporter, I know I definitely would have made the same mistake! But should not have.) The stakes were/are high. We lose so much credibility being shown to have made up a quote, even inadvertently. So much important, good reporting gets discredited as a result. Steve Brill had a rule at his American Lawyer publications that the most damaging quote or accusation in a story can’t be attributed to an unnamed source. I agree with that policy.

    • Dan Kennedy

      I can’t disagree. At the same time, though, they’ve got be happier than they were before Fuchs stepped up.

  2. Thanks for all of your commentary, Dan. Just heard a radio program this morning about accelerating progress of technology to create ever-more-convincing fake videos and audios of a particular human being. Argh. It’s innovation being driven by the porn industry and the advertising industry and the entertainment industry which seems hubristically destined to further sabotage our shared sense of trust and accuracy in news and information. Maybe you could write about this (to me horrible) new development in irresponsible innovation.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Thanks, @willedare. There have been studies that show crude fakes are about as effective as really good ones. People believe what they want to believe.

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