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IS IT ETHICAL TO USE SOURCES WHO REFUSE TO BE IDENTIFIED?

Journalists by and large have applauded the Seattle Times while tut-tutting the way it went about making charges that have forced Sen. Brock Adams from the race for re-election in Washington state.

The Salt Lake Tribune called the case "troubling" but editorialized that "the unusual circumstances . . . clearly justify the Times' extraordinary decision to publish its investigation." It called for Adams' resignation. The thoughtful feminist columnist Anna Quindlen wrote in the New York Times that the Seattle Times' decision was the right one even though it was a "tough call."- THE DECISION IS even more troubling and less clearly justified than the Tribune concludes, however. In following up longtime rumors of Adams' conduct and summoning the testimony of eight unnamed women who claim to have been sexually abused by him, the Seattle daily ran a course full of potholes.

Ethical questions that have bedeviled the press have come together in the Adams case. One of the most pressing issues that we hear a lot about nowadays is how and even whether the press ought to dissect the private lives of public people - especially how a public official's behavior with women reflects on his capacity for office, the code words for which are the "character issue."

Of course, the accusations against Adams involve criminal behavior, drugging and molesting women. Even so, it is highly unlikely that even five years ago the paper would have pursued the story in the absence of an official police or court action. The whole climate of holding public officials accountable for their personal actions has been changing in the past two decades and most especially recently with the stories about Gary Hart, Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton. The New York Times reports that "some senators appeared almost stunned at how swiftly the rules of conduct have changed."

- ANOTHER MAJOR ETHICAL issue is the Seattle Times' use of wholly confidential sources.

The press is beginning to agree on some ground rules on hidden informants. On two important ones the Seattle Times comes out looking good. One is to try to get the source to go on record. The Seattle Times says it tried mightily to do so. A second principle holds that failing in this, the press should ask the informant to agree to go public if the case should go to court. The Times says the women agreed that if a libel action resulted, they would allow themselves to be named.

But should such sources ever be used to bring charges against someone? (In this case the alleged incidents are not even recent; some are several years old.)

Blind sources really become problematical when they make severe personal accusations. Fair play dictates that an accused have the right to confront the accuser. And is the "cleansing light of publicity" - really trial by newspaper - ever a legitimate substitute for inquiries in the courts, where ever so much higher standards are used to probe for the truth?

In a libel action, for instance, the press can plead truth as justification for publishing material that makes others think less of someone. But that truth has to be more than what "everyone knows" to be true or even what some people testify is true - it has to be truth according to the standards of a court of law.

No matter how probing the Times investigation might otherwise have been, none of the eight witnesses was ever cross-examined and as far as we know no rebuttal witnesses were examined. And even in the unlikely event the case ever goes to court, no evidence can be brought other than the testimony of these women. While the witnesses tell substantially the same kind of stories there is always the possibility they have their own agendas for doing so.

- ONE OF MY CONCERNS is that these methods will become a model of great journalistic performance. The reporting of Watergate not only rested on confidential sources but also led many wannabe Woodwards-Bernsteins to aspire to fame and fortune by "getting" someone. In the same era the investigative techniques pioneered by "60 Minutes" were widely imitated by local news stations, who used ambush interviews and concealed cameras and impersonation and the like, often without the CBS controls and restraints.

The Adams case will be a landmark - though it also is something of a sore spot - in the press' growing awareness of its responsibilities in probing reports of scandalous conduct.A HIRING COUP

One of the best-known and respected Native American newsmen in the country, Mark Trahant, will join the Salt Lake Tribune on April 15 as one of its top newsroom executives, news editor. Trahant is believed to be the first Native American ever hired in the news shop at any Salt Lake paper.

The hire is a coup for Tribune editor Jay Shelledy.

Trahant is president of the Native American Journalists Association, which includes those working in both mainstream and tribal papers. His first newspaper job was as editor of a tribal paper called the Sho-Ban (for Shoshone Bannock) that he started at Fort Hall in Idaho, where he grew up. Later he worked in the Carter administration as public affairs officer in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. From 1982 to 1987 he edited a 12,000 circulation Navajo daily. Last year, with four partners including his Navajo wife, Lenora, he started an independent Navajo Weekly in Window Rock, Ariz.

- ALTHOUGH THE WEEKLY couldn't survive its infant diseases, Trahant says, "I really believe tribal democracy demands an independent press. Most newspapers in Indian country are owned by tribal governments. That's dangerous because a lot of voices are needed."

Tribune readers already have seen his work, a front-page backgrounder on March 1, with a Window Rock dateline. It dealt with the trials of Peter MacDonald Sr., the onetime "most powerful tribal leader in America . . . as chairman of the Navajo Nation."

Trahant started at Phoenix's Arizona Republic in 1987 on the investigative team. The team worked more than four months on the series on Mormon finances that ran in papers throughout the country, including the Deseret News, last summer.

- "WE WERE WORRIED that the stories would be seen as Mormon bashing, so it was nice to see that they got a positive reaction. We really worked hard being fair," Trahant says.

After a year off to produce a "Frontline" documentary for PBS he returned to the Republic as national correspondent, largely concentrating on reporting Western problems. His story on fraud in Indian country was a finalist for the Pulitzer and winner of the George Polk award for national reporting. Trahant also has been cited for "inspiring display of entrepreneurial journalist" by the National Press Foundation in Washington, D.C.

After his Navajo weekly folded he passed up offers to go to other major dailies because, he says, coming to Salt Lake City is like going home.