Stop Being a Tool for Asshole Anonymous Sources

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BREAKING news in the EPIC civil WAR in the Democratic Party! The DEMS are in DISARRAY! The Hill got the JUICY DEETS: One ANONYMOUS ASSHOLE says AOC is a FAKE WOMAN OF COLOR and PUPPET for WHITE LIBS:

A senior House Democratic aide called it “ironic and funny” that Ocasio-Cortez is accusing Pelosi of attacking women of color, when Justice Democrats is targeting minority lawmakers.

“She’s only a woman of color when it’s convenient. None of the things she’s fought for aligned with communities of color and her group is funded only by elitist white liberals; she’s a puppet,” the top Democratic aide told The Hill in a phone call.

The aide then texted an image of a Goomba puppet from the Super Mario Bros. video game.

“I can’t tell you how pissed off people are” about the Justice Democrats, the aide added. “All these CBC members feel like they are under siege. But it’s offensive that these elitist, white liberals feel like they can undermine the foundation of our party,” African American voters.

Wong later tweeted the Goomba puppet photo the aide texted him:


I truly cannot speculate what this is supposed to mean. I can say that this image appears on the first page of Google results when you search “puppet,” but I don’t know why the aide picked this one in particular. (After the report came out, the Justice Democrats called on Pelosi to condemn the remarks.)

So, what we have here is a Democratic aide on the Hill essentially accusing AOC of being a fake woman of color and a puppet for white liberals. That’s an extremely serious and offensive charge. And yet we have no idea who leveled it.

There is a big difference between political journalism that explains and contextualizes internal battles going on in the Democratic Party and Hill gossip pieces that make the media its battleground to wage those internal battles. When congressional aides give you a quote, they’re probably using you to advance their boss’ or their own interests. That’s what they’re paid to do, and it’s unavoidable. But sometimes there’s other value in printing what they’re saying; other times, like this one, it does nothing but advance their agenda.

Whether or not you mean to, when you print someone’s quotes, you lend credence to what they’re saying. Well, if a *top* Democratic aide thinks AOC is a fake Latina, maybe that view is widespread? Someone’s said it now, so maybe it’s fair to talk about? That’s why you have to be so careful about offering anonymity to sources: They might use it to throw out things that they know are not at all true because there’s no negative consequences for doing so.


Let’s see what the Society of Professional Journalists says about anonymous sources:

1. Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.

2. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.


To be clear, these are not hard and fast rules, nor are Journalism Rules always conducive to good journalism; in fact, they often hinder it. But there are good reasons for journalists to grant anonymity to sources—like if they’re talking to you about pending legislation or policy that they wouldn’t tell you otherwise and that advances the public’s knowledge of what’s going in, or if they’re a whistleblower exposing misdeeds. There is no case for anonymity when all they’re doing is hurling indefensible insults.

Because the Hill’s source is unnamed, we also have no idea how reliable or representative this Democratic aide is. Do a lot of Democratic aides secretly feel that AOC is a fake woman of color, or is this person out on a limb? Is this person the chief of staff to a member of leadership or some dipshit press secretary no one likes anyway? More to the point, is this person accusing AOC of being a puppet of white liberals...white? They could be! We have no idea.


The bigger context for this fuckup is that it’s happening within a story about the tensions between the Congressional Black Caucus and Justice Democrats. The strategy, it seems, is to defend Pelosi from criticism that she’s targeting women of color by pointing out that The Squad are also going after people of color, in this case by supporting primary challenges against them.

As the New York Times’ Astead Herndon pointed out on Twitter, the CBC doesn’t necessarily have the moral high ground here:


Herndon also noted that “part of the reason the CBC hates Justice Dems so much is that their seats are largely deep blue legacy ones where the only risk of losing it is an insurgent primary.” This is important context that appears nowhere in the Hill story. By allowing an anonymous aide to lob an accusation that AOC is not a “real” woman of color—an accusation that you could fairly call racist—you’re allowing one side to deploy an extremely dirty and unfair, but potentially effective, tactic against the other.

Unfortunately, it isn’t particularly surprising to see an anonymous source get away with this behavior. Yesterday, the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin tweeted what he described as a “mass email” that was also provided “ON BACKGROUND AS A SENIOR DEMOCRATIC AIDE ASSOCIATED WITH THE BLUE DOG COALITION.” The email accused AOC’s chief of staff, who is also a person of color, of unfairly calling members of color racist:


If you’re not familiar with journalistic terms, “on background” can mean different things to different people (which is why it’s important to clarify what you mean when you say it), but it means you can’t attribute it by name to the source—here, the source helpfully told reporters how to attribute it! But it’s not a magic phrase that a source can invoke; both parties have to agree. If both parties don’t agree, and your source just tries to declare something on background, you have a choice. You’re not required to treat it as on background, because you didn’t agree to that, so you can freely use it. (Even if you do agree, you can choose to break that agreement.) A mass email clearly doesn’t constitute that two-sided agreement.

But, if you do attribute it, the source will get pissed at you and won’t give you anything in the future. In this case, Martin received the mass email—God knows how many other cowards received the email and also didn’t publish who sent it—and clearly didn’t want to burn the person who sent it by naming them, yet also thought its contents were valuable enough to share, and so he did, loyally agreeing to the source’s terms. (Another reporter who received the mass email forwarded it to me, so I posted it on Twitter last night. The person who sent the email is Brooke Lillard, the communications director for the Blue Dog Coalition.)


I bring this up because both journalists made a decision here to prize continued access to their sources over their readers’ right to know. Martin might have received an angry phone call from Lillard had he tweeted that she was the one who sent the background email; he certainly would have jeopardized his access to the Blue Dog Coalition’s valuable thoughts in the future and likely mark himself as the kind of guy who might do this again to anyone on the Hill. Wong could publish the name of the aide who sent him the Goomba picture, but then he wouldn’t have access to such a sharp mind for future reporting.

Let’s be clear here: Wong and Martin are the norm. Lillard felt emboldened to do something as plainly ridiculous as sending out a mass “on background” email, an act inherently disdainful of real journalistic practices, because she knew no one would break the terms of engagement. Not one sorry asshole in DC would do that. Wong’s source felt comfortable throwing out a racist accusation against AOC because they knew Wong wouldn’t break their agreement and publish their name.


That, I’m afraid, is this town.