Anonymity: A Journalistic Divide

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

It is no secret that the world view of Americans at large contrasts sharply with that of the Washington crowd. Evidence of that reality surfaced most recently when the news of President Clinton’s alleged sexual involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and presidential volunteer Kathleen Willey broke. Inside the Beltway, journalists talked of impeachment and resignation; outside the Beltway, a contented public registered its strongest approval yet of the two-term Democrat.

Reporters and the people appear to have different perspectives of right and wrong, of what is acceptable and what is not. But that comparison may be of apples and oranges. A better question is this: Do the real-world journalists, those who inform their audiences about the activities of the city councils, school boards, county supervisors and state legislators, approach their profession differently than their higher-paid celebrity colleagues in the nation’s capital?

Rejecting ‘the Washington culture’
The answer, at least when it comes to the use of anonymous or unattributed sources, appears to be a resounding, “Yes.” In Washington, where the identity of Watergate’s “Deep Throat” remains a mystery, the ambiguous descriptor “official” is a mainstay in the pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, Time and other major publications. A sidebar in the March 1998 issue of American Journalism Review, for instance, noted the use of nearly four dozen “official” sources in a Dec. 29, 1997, article in The New York Times. Only four of the sources in the 3,400-word article were identified by name.

But in the rest of America, editors at newspapers large and small — from Maine to southern California and all spots in between — reject the loose standards of anonymity prevalent among publications in what they call “the Washington culture.” They insist that their reporters toe the traditional journalistic line of on-the-record interviews in all but the most extreme circumstances, like protecting the identity of a whistleblower who could lose a job or a police informant whose life would be at risk if identified.

Editors may encourage their reporters to foster relationships with “insiders” who want their identities protected, but they view such sources as “tipsters” and seldom use their verbal information as the basis of a story. Instead, the newspaper works the story, sometimes for days or weeks, to confirm the tip independently.

Even community newspapers in the suburbs of Washington adhere to those stricter standards. Jim Mullay, managing editor of the Prince William Journal, a weekday newspaper that covers a Virginia county about 20 miles from the Beltway, said he teaches his reporters to avoid not only the use of anonymous sources but the practice of interviewing sources “off the record.” He insists that reporters tell him who their sources are before he would even consider quoting them anonymously.


Who Ya Gonna Call? Floodbusters!

Originally published in the Prince William Journal, March 25, 1998
By K. Daniel Glover

The writer finds his muse in the strangest of places sometimes, and I found mine in four inches of water at about 1 a.m. Saturday.

Just a few hours earlier, as I reclined in front of a cozy fire and imbibed in a little of college basketball’s March Madness, I had decided to change my approach to this column for at least one week.

Since the first edition of “Inside the Box” in late January, I thought to myself, I have criticized just about everybody — school officials, athletes, Democrats, Republicans, “feminazis,” 12-steppers, aggressive drivers and the spoiled rich folk intimidated by some pesky buzzards, blackbirds and deer.

Irony already has slapped me in the face once for my satirical prose. That blackbirds that made life so miserable for the country-club crowd in Haymarket, Va., last December apparently decided a few weeks ago that our deck is as good as any outhouse.

And besides, I don’t want my three loyal readers — Dad, Grandpa Tumblebug and my wife, Kimberly — to think I’m just a crotchety, cantankerous curmudgeon. (OK, Kimberly already thinks so. She calls me “Triple C” when I get real grumpy.)

Rather than focus solely on the negative, outside-the-box thinking that so aggravates me, I purposed in my heart to praise some evidence of the old-fashioned, inside-the-box thinking that makes me nostalgic.

The only problem: There are few inside-the-box thinkers left in this world, especially in a bureaucracy-laden region like Washington. If there were, I wouldn’t be writing a column called “Inside the Box,” now would I?

After two hours of couch-potato meditation, I realized I would not find my inspiration in Duke’s Sweet 16 victory over Syracuse and headed to bed at 11 p.m. That’s when Kimberly awakened me from my basketball-induced stupor.

“The basement is flooding!” she screeched, sending our hound dogs, Peanut and Shelby, into a panic. (Not really, but I like to be dramatic.)

The downpour that dumped three inches of rain on the metro area made the sump pump that protect our basement from the wrath of nature its first victim, and the water already had begun to seep into our family room.

‘Mr. Smith’ Not Welcome In Washington

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Movie buffs and Washington watchers have heard the rumors by now. The story goes something like this: President Clinton and John Travolta, star of the movie “Primary Colors,” had a friendly chat in the White House and reached an agreement. If Travolta would sympathetically portray Jack Stanton, the main character in “Primary Colors” whose political and personal life loosely resembles Clinton’s, the president would pressure the German government to ease its opposition to Travolta’s beloved Church of Scientology.

“Primary Colors” author Joe Klein scoffed at the notion of such an arrangement in the March 16, 1998, issue of Time magazine, and Travolta said he did not alter his performance due to pressure from Clinton. But the fact that power brokers in Washington might try to influence their portrayal in the movies, or even that they might denounce a flick that casts them in a negative light, should not surprise anyone. It has happened before.

In 1939, legendary director Frank Capra followed one of his more famous characters, Jefferson Smith of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” to the nation’s capital for a high-profile welcome and glitzy premiere. Before the showing of his movie to lawmakers, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and big-name journalists, Capra exulted in what he called a “love feast” in his 1971 autobiography, “Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title.” Afterward, he wondered why he had gone to Washington, as the same politicians and pundits who had praised him earlier in the day vilified his artistic effort and derided “Mr. Smith” as an affront to democracy and fair play.

‘The great American picture!’
“Mr. Smith,” still the most famous Washington-related movie, stars Jimmy Stewart as Smith, a political novice who is selected as a mid-term Senate replacement. Leaders of the state political machine choose Smith, the head of the scouting group Boy Rangers, because of his supposed naïveté, but Smith rebuffs the overtures of his corrupt benefactors. They frame Smith and, with the aid of the easily manipulated home-state media, turn public opinion against the squeaky-clean neophyte. But a Senate colleague who was party to the conspiracy eventually confesses the sordid tale.

Film-industry critics extolled “Mr. Smith” upon its release. Variety called it “the most vital and stirring drama of contemporary American life yet told in films,” and Billboard touted the movie as “the great American picture!” The positive reviews undoubtedly helped convince Fred W. Perkins, of the then-Washington Press Club (now the National Press Club), to invite Capra to screen the movie in Washington in honor of Jim Preston, the film’s technical adviser and superintendent of the Senate Press Gallery for 35 years.

Capra accepted the invitation — but only after insisting that Press Club representatives view the film first, in a theater with a general audience. Perkins, Arthur Hatchen of the International News Service and Newark Evening News Washington correspondent Walter Karig did just that Oct. 3. They liked it and, Capra later wrote, “enthusiastically” agreed to sponsor a luncheon and a showing of Mr. Smith at Constitution Hall that same evening.

Goodbye Deficit, Hello Surplus

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Washington by nature is a divisive place, and the elected officials and bureaucrats who rule the roost seldom adopt a common theme. But as the current millennium comes to a close, the nation’s leaders seem to have chosen this as the mantra for the start of the 21st century: The era of the budget surplus has arrived — and it will continue for some time.

Evidence to bolster that optimism continues to mount. An annual federal deficit that neared $300 billion when President Clinton took office in 1993 plummeted to $22.6 billion in fiscal 1997, according to Congressional Budget Office figures. The Treasury Department reported in December that federal revenue exceeded expenses for a 12-month period for the first time in decades.

Just this week, CBO predicted a surplus of $8 billion in fiscal 1998, which ends Sept. 30, and a budget bonus of up to $138 billion by fiscal 2008. Clinton, meanwhile, has projected a fiscal 1999 surplus of $9.5 billion and surpluses totaling some $1 trillion over the next decade.

The nation will know soon enough whether policymakers can transform those rosy forecasts into reality. Until then, one question seems to be on the minds of America’s leaders: How do we use this windfall? On that question, there is no agreement, nor does one seem imminent.

No shortage of ideas
Clinton’s idea to “save Social Security first,” which he espoused in a January State of the Union address that spoke of surpluses “as far as the eye can see,” certainly has the momentum. His call to apply any short-term surplus toward the $5.5 trillion national debt while the administration and Congress debate changes to the retirement system currently has the backing of fellow Democrats, and it has forced GOP leaders to rethink their own plans for the potential revenue.

But the Clinton proposal is by no means the only one. A consistently robust economy that made the one-time fantasy of a government in the black a foregone conclusion has triggered an array of ideas. In general, policymakers who have succumbed to surplus fever can be divided into three broadly defined camps — debt busters, tax cutters and public investors. Virtually all of them believe some of the excess money should go toward debt reduction; they disagree on how the remainder should be spent.