Jon Tester Montana Politics The Media

Terrible Sources, Worse Journalism: A Tester Tale

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What follows is entirely my opinion. If I were a Beltway journalist working at Politico or Business Insider, I would just sprinkle phrases like “sources say” and “those familiar with ______’s thinking” in my piece, but since I am merely a blogger, I’m not permitted those journalistic niceties. Take that under advisement.

It seems the Great War of Anonymous Montana Political Sources of 2013 is continuing.

Today, some anonymous sources of indeterminate qualification and vague connection to Governor Schweitzer told Business Insider that they believed Senator Tester and his staff were behind the recent “attacks” on Governor Schweitzer:

Multiple sources close to Schweitzer pointed to Tester and his chief of staff, directly, as the source of that doubt — something that Tester’s staff denies….The source said Tester was “sticking knives” in Schweitzer’s potential run.

To believe that narrative is to believe that Senator Tester wanted to cripple the most likely Democratic winner in the Senate race, increase the odds that he’d be in the minority and decrease his efficacy and influence in Washington and back home.

It’s simply unimaginable that Senator Tester or the staff that helped him win two tough elections in the past six years could be that stupid or narrow-minded. This narrative would make some sense if Tester were clearly promoting a Schweitzer alternative or if he truly believed that Schweitzer couldn’t win the Senate seat, but every poll and every analyst out there acknowledges that Schweitzer was, by far, the mostly likely Democratic candidate to retain the seat and help the Democrats retain their Senate majority. [pullquote]Political strategists, hangers-on, and other assorted sycophants should probably be less interested in getting the attention of reporters and more interested in working to elect candidates who represent the broad interests of the party. [/pullquote]

The stories also ask us to ignore everything we’ve learned about Brian Schweitzer over the past twelve years. To believe these anonymous sources who support him, the same Brian Schweitzer who has delighted in embarrassing and challenging his political opponents for his entire career quit because some anonymous people were mean to him in a Washington online news source.

That not only doesn’t sound like the Brian Schweitzer we know; it would diminish him were it true.

To recap the big political journalism in Montana from national sources in the past couple of weeks, we’ve got a poorly-sourced set of anonymous attacks on Governor Schweitzer, followed by an equally poorly-sourced set of anonymous attacks from those loyal to Governor Schweitzer speculating who might have been responsible for those original attacks. The Business Insider piece even unwittingly exposes just how little credibility its sources have. Somehow this small group of Schweitzer loyalists was close enough to know the governor’s thinking about Senator Tester, but not close enough to know Schweitzer was going to drop out of the race.

My sense is that these “sources” are disappointed about Schweitzer’s decision, and desperately casting about for a villain upon which they can cast their unhappiness.

This whole sordid spectacle offers two lessons, neither of which is likely to be heeded.

The narrow lesson is that political strategists, hangers-on, and other assorted sycophants should probably be less interested in getting the attention of reporters and more interested in working to elect candidates who represent the broad interests of the party. Once Schweitzer left the race, instead of flailing about in the media for answers, these “sources” should have started talking about other Democratic candidates and how they could support them.

The broader lesson, even less likely to be noted, is that anonymous sources are debasing political discourse in this country, rather than informing the public.  When the use of anonymity protects sources who are serving the public interest or bringing factual information to light—and they face meaningful retribution for the information they release—it’s legitimate, if not essential for functioning democracy that we protect those sources.  We need those stories. We need more of those stories.

When that same anonymity is extended to political hacks expressing little more than self-serving speculation, we all lose. Sensationalistic stories about anonymous campaign sources might bring some web traffic, but they certainly don’t offer much in the way of truth.

I think the NPR Ethics Handbook offers an excellent guideline for the use of anonymous sources:

Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be heard attacking or praising others in our reports (with the possible rare exceptions of whistleblowers and individuals making allegations of sexual assault; see the longer discussion of anonymous sources in the section on transparency). While we recognize that some valuable information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny.

Political journalism isn’t likely to change towards these principles any time soon, and that’s a damn shame.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it’s a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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