All the anonymous Vatican voices in the Gray Lady

At this point in the conclave process, I’m sure that millions of liberal Catholics are carefully watching The New York Times daily coverage to see what the world’s most powerful newspaper has to say about who will be, and who should be, the next occupant of the Throne of St. Peter.

At the same time, I would imagine that traditional Catholics, as defined by doctrine rather than politics, are parsing the daily Times coverage from Rome with another agenda altogether. At this point, it is really interesting to pay close attention to who is, and who is not, continuing to talk to the representatives of the Great Gray Lady.

That’s a very interesting question, at the moment.

Why? Because it’s almost impossible right now to know who is providing information to the Times, if you expect to learn that kind of information by reading the attribution clauses in the newspaper’s own stories.

This steady use of anonymous sources should trouble supporters of the newspaper’s credibility — especially those of us who were encouraged, back in 2005, when we read the New York Times Company self study called “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” (.pdf text is here). It included quite a bit of material urging Times editors to minimize the use of anonymous sources. The review panel offered three recommendations:

* Reporters must be more aggressive in pressing sources to put information and quotations on the record, especially sources who strongly desire to get their viewpoint into the paper.

* Editors must be more energetic in pressing reporters to get that information on the record. They must also recognize that persuading reticent sources to put their names behind sensitive disclosures is not easy; it may slow the reporting.

* When anonymity is unavoidable, reporters and editors must be more diligent in describing sources more fully. The basics include how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information and why they are entitled to anonymity.

Now, with these worthy Times standards in mind, read through the news story that ran under the headline, “Pope Wanted. Must Possess Magnetic Charm. And Grit.” It opens like this:

ROME – No candidate for pope can have it all. But the cardinals who will elect the next pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church seem to be looking for someone who combines the charisma of Pope John Paul II with the grit of what one Vatican analyst called, only slightly tongue in cheek, “Pope Rambo I.”

While it is too early to talk of front-runners, hints to the characteristics sought in a future pontiff can be discerned from the utterances of the cardinals who have spent the past week in meetings at the Vatican. Before Wednesday, when they stopped giving interviews, the cardinals frequently cited attributes the church now needs: a compelling communicator who wins souls through both his words and his holy bearing, and a fearless sheriff who can tackle the disarray and scandal in the Vatican.

Now, while the word “seems” is always a bit edgy in a lede, the key is that this material assures readers that they will be hearing information based on the “utterances of the cardinals” who are gathered at the Vatican. That would be a good thing — lots of direct quotes from specific cardinals.

Now, let’s look for that kind of authoritative material in the story. Let’s keep reading, because the next two paragraphs state the thesis:

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Guess which WPost reporter refuses to cover you fairly

This weekend, we looked at the Washington Post ombudsman column that revealed that the newspaper has an extremely serious problem with doing basic journalism when it comes to the thorny issue of whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples.

The ombudsman column is something that could be discussed for many reasons, but I want to narrow it to just one point of discussion: anonymity. Should the ombudsman have granted anonymity to the reporter who was revealing his or her bigotry and egregious ignorance against the people he or she is supposed to cover intelligently and fairly?

Again, you can read my piece “WPost: Yes, we fear and loathe religious traditionalists” for the details of this breathtaking admission from the Post, but for our purposes the relevant portion is this:

Here are excerpts from that dialogue, with the reader’s and reporter’s names kept out of it at their requests.

Now, I don’t get as animated about anonymity as many journalists do, although I do agree it poses serious problems. I also know that I would have written very few stories about waste, fraud and mismanagement in the federal government without granting it.

You know how when people are granted anonymity, reporters write why they wanted it? Say, because they’re not supposed to talk publicly about that personnel decision or sensitive bill negotiations or whatever? Well, one media critic recently suggested that instead of talking about why the source wanted anonymity, reporters should simply say why they granted it.

Anyway, the problem with the anonymity granted to the reporter in this case is that it tarnishes 100% of the reporters at the Washington Post. I was at a party of journalists this weekend where various people named who they thought the reporter in question was. There were a few theories and some were stronger than others. But if I were a decent reporter at the Post, one who did not hold uncontrollably bigoted views against religious adherents or people with different moral or political views than my own, I’d be unhappy to have many of my readers wondering if I seethed with contempt for them.

Let’s look at an interesting Twitter conversation between a few other reporters who discussed the ombudsman’s piece, including the Washington Examiner‘s Byron York, Jan Crawford of CBS News, and James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal:

@Byron York: WaPo ombudsman publishes emails revealing paper’s mindset on social issues. No wonder they want to get rid of him.

@JanCBS: It’s the reporter’s obliviousness to bias (lecturing on what conservatives “should” believe) that’s most revealing.

@JamesTaranto: If he were truly oblivious, he wouldn’t have insisted on anonymity.

@JanCBS: He was emailing with a reader. I assumed he wasn’t anonymous.

@JamesTaranto: See the piece. @wapoombudsman granted him anonymity.

@JanCBS: My point is he/she is saying those things publicly as a reporter. Byline is irrelevant.

@JamesTaranto: But he was suddenly inhibited when faced with the prospect of having his views published in his own paper.

@JanCBS: So what? That he/she initially saw nothing wrong in expressing those views is my point re newsrooms.

@JamesTaranto: Imagine how you’d feel if CBS aired a similar rant by one of your colleagues without identification.

Don Surber, an editorial writer at the Charleston Daily Mail wrote:

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