Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Anonymous cowards

Andrew Leonard's How The World Works is my favorite globalization blog. His most recent entry on the housing bubble notes this bit of weirdness from the New York Times.

“We don’t really know the ripple effects,” said one industry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity and gravity of the situation. “It is causing a revaluation of the securities, some of which may lead to additional liquidations. That’s possible, but it’s not set in stone.”

Now, I realize that the financial gurus who invested heavily in sub-prime mortgages are feeling a little nervous right now, and there are a lot of people looking to find a lot of other people to blame. But unless the next sentence out of his mouth was, "Also, the upper management of Goldman-Sachs keep a gaming preserve where they shoot hobos for sport," this self-styled industry official is saying something pretty innocuous. He sort of reminds me of that friend everyone has; you know, the one that makes a big deal about some secret that he simply must not share. Then, when he reluctantly and ever-so-dramatically spills his guts, it's completely anticlimactic. It's something you already knew, or it's simply not the juicy gossip he thinks it is.

Anonymous sources played a key role in the run-up to the Iraqi occupation, especially in cases where the always chatty "Senior Administration Official"
pseudonymously towed the Administration party line. Since then, we've seen other mind-bending abuses of anonymous sourcing. The most hilarious example has to be when "Senior Administration Official" gave an interview in which he defended the honor of Sith Lord Dick Cheney. It was unmistakably clear from the quotes that "Senior Administration Official" sounded like a bit of a Dick himself.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just make one editorial comment here. I've seen some press reporting says, "Cheney went in to beat up on them, threaten them." That's not the way I work. I don't know who writes that, or maybe somebody gets it from some source who doesn't know what I'm doing, or isn't involved in it. But the idea that I'd go in and threaten someone is an invalid misreading of the way I do business.
We don't expect much from the Vice President anymore (aside from the faint smell of burning sulfur when he enters the room), but can't we at least expect the competent handling of pronouns?

In my mind, anonymity should only be granted when a source faces potential retribution for revealing information, and there is nobody else willing to come forward with that information. In "Industry Official's" case, there have to be a number of people in the industry who would be willing to say what every last one of them must be thinking. In "Senior Administration Vice Pres-- er, Official's" case, there were clearly no grounds for granting anonymity. The protection of anonymous sources is for protecting the powerless from retribution by the powerful, not for protecting the powerful from accountability for their own words.

But it's not hard to understand why Cheney would want anonymity. Greenwald calls it an exercise in imperious power; he paints a picture of a veep so crazed with power that he demands no person be allowed to utter his name. I think there is a much simpler explanation: given Cheney's shaky credibility, everything sounds more believable when it doesn't sound like it's coming from him.

I'm going to start collecting these weird uses of anonymous sourcing, because the topic interests me, and because it's faster than composing an entire long-winded rant. Gotta keep the content comin'.

On a related note, I got my first anonymous troll. It's good to know that someone is reading.