The New York Times has decided it is fine to out a confidential source — provided his name is Tucker Carlson. Its media columnist, Ben Smith, reports that the Fox News star is “the go-to guy for sometimes-unflattering stories about Donald J. Trump and for coverage of the internal politics of Fox News (not to mention stories about Mr. Carlson himself).”
Breaking a cardinal rule of journalistic ethics, Smith identifies Carlson as one of his own “off-the-record” sources. So, too, did “16 other journalists … [who] told me on background that he has been, as three of them put it, ‘a great source.’”
Betraying no self-awareness of his cynicism, Smith underscores the transgressive nature of these disclosures by noting that none of the 16 work at the Times because “it would put my colleagues in a weird position if I asked them” to betray a source. Translation: He’s happy to have his competitors violate sacred rules.
The one offender Smith does name is Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” (and Times alumnus) who routinely casts himself as the conscience of journalism, who told him “you can see Tucker’s fingerprints all over” his anti-Fox book, “Hoax.”
Given the left’s hatred of Carlson – who is their current Bogeyman No. 2, after Donald Trump – and its habit of reporting fake news, Smith’s article could be a smear aimed at stirring up conflict on the right and problems for Carlson with his employer. That thought would not have occurred to me even five years ago, but that’s where we are.
If Carlson does dish dirt off the record, Smith’s piece is a yet another new low for our increasingly partisan press. As my RealClearInvestigations colleague Tom Kuntz observed, “Protecting confidential sources is, of course, one of the bedrocks of journalism. The free flow of information depends on people being able to share hard truths without jeopardizing their careers or lives.”
It is why journalists have gone to jail to protect their sources. Outing Carlson sends the message that trust is dead in American journalism. No source is safe if reporters decide they don’t like or agree with them. Today it’s the Fox News anchor, tomorrow it’s the whistleblower who uncovered malfeasance in the Biden administration.
Still, the protection of confidentiality is not ironclad. All bets are off when a source lies. For example, false disclosures from dishonest anonymous sources were a prime driver of the bogus Trump/Russia scandal that dominated the news for several years. Smith’s paper was a prime dumping ground of misinformation, as was the publication he edited before coming to the Times, BuzzFeed, publisher of the now-infamous and largely fabricated Steele dossier. Smith also oversaw the seminal but deeply misleading BuzzFeed work of Ali Watkins (now also at the Times) that commenced the years-long media smearing of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Kuntz argues, “When sources engage in gross deception on a matter of such import, even committing national security crimes in the process, the news media involved should honor their higher duty – to their readers or viewers – to expose the malfeasance and correct the record.”
Even as the Times outs Carlson – who is not accused of misleading anyone – it continues to protect those who perpetrated devastating frauds upon the nation. That silence is a scandal; instead of honoring trust, it betrays it. If Smith truly cares about the fate of American journalism, he should insist that his editors identify the anonymous sources of their many debunked stories during the Trump years:
The paper could start by unmasking the unnamed “law enforcement” source who told the paper that Capitol Hill police officer Brian Sicknick had died after “pro-Trump rioters … struck him in the head with a fire extinguisher.” Although this claim was cited by Democrats as grounds for impeachment, it was apparently invented. And what about the anonymous sources who told the Times and other news outlets that former New York City mayor and Trump confidant Rudy Giuliani had received “a formal warning” about potential Russian disinformation. The Times issued a correction to this whopper, but never said where the disinformation came from. Likewise, Times readers still don’t know the identity of the source who maintained – anonymously, of course — that the 2016 Trump campaign had “repeated contacts” with Russian intelligence agents, a claim Robert Mueller could find no evidence to support.
Although the Times never named any of these sources, something tells me it wasn’t Tucker Carlson.
J. Peder Zane is an editor for RealClearInvestigations and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.