Sunday, December 18, 2005

Whistle blowers

Bush Secretly Lifted Some Limits on Spying in U.S. After 9/11, Officials Say

Nearly a dozen current and former officials, who were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program, discussed it with reporters for The New York Times because of their concerns about the operation's legality and oversight.

Rarely, very rarely, anonymous sources speak to reporters because they are genuinely concerned about serious wrong doing. This is how the cult of anonymous sources was established.

In the case of intelligence agencies, there are only a limited number of people who could possibly have known about this. Does anyone reading this have any doubt that the proponents of this program have long since identified and retaliated against the sources for this article? Particularly because the New York Times, for reasons best known to itself, withheld publication of this article for a year? When a source speaks speaks off-the-record to a reporter, they have no possibility of invoking the whistle blower protection act.

Of course civil servants feel that the act is ineffective and will not protect them, which is why both the Project on Government Oversight and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility encourage anonymous activism. But in a world where almost no one will publicly blow the whistle, it is far easier for bullies to isolate and punish the whistle blowers who do emerge. Had the sources for the New York Times article all have gone on the record, it would have been very difficult to have retaliated against all of them. It is known as solidarity and is the foundation of all nonviolent political protest.

If the PR industry wishes to end the practice of anonymous sources, and I hope opinion is shifting in that direction, then it is not enough to persuade our clients to speak on the record. We also have to educate our clients to distinguish between whistle blowers and trouble makers and resist the temptation to retaliate against the former.

This article is great reporting. There isn’t a PR pro reading this post who wouldn’t be thrilled to have a client favorably mentioned in the New York Times. We pay for advertising in the Times not merely because of the number of people who read it, but because of the class of the venue. Great journalists make PR possible; James Risen and Erick Lictblau have reminded us why journalism matters.

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