Thursday, August 2, 2007

Deep Throat 2007: The Web as a Deep Background Source

Several weblogs are reporting on anonymous comments appearing on a prominent political weblog that appear to have been posted by a high-level member of the Bush administration based on their detailed knowledge of the inner workings of their national security operations. As in the famous reportage of Bob Woodward who used his "Deep Throat" source Mark Felt of the FBI to learn tangentially about many details of illegal Nixon White House operations this new anonymous source seems to like to play cat and mouse with his/her online questioners. An interesting exchange goes as follows:

mo2: Could it be that they did do something, but that something was illegal?

You are correct.

mo2: "And they feel it is better to be called do-nothings than criminals?"

Also, they like the idea people are focusing on the wrong surveillance, wrong time period: The confusion means they can blame Congress for "not asking the right questions."

While such exchanges could only be used as notes or deep background references at most rather than quotable sources it is interesting that in today's world of social media high-level governmental figures might feel more comfortable leaking their view of issues to the public over the Web rather than via established media channels. There are obvious opportunities for abuse in this methodology - facts can be tailored easily by such a source to whatever effect they may have in mind - but it may be indicative of a problem that journalists in general are facing. One of the key remaining advantages that journalists in established news organizations have is their relationships with key figures that they can mine for inside insights. If those key figures are just as disposed to tell their story to the public through exposed or anonymous channels the ability to cultivate exclusive news contacts is weakened considerably even at the highest levels of news gathering.

While many relationships in journalism with sources are bound to stay in place based on well-established personal trust the hard fact is that such trust is not strictly necessary today for a public figure to get their story out. A comment here, an RSS feed there, and before you know it each person can have an amazing amount of power to tell the truth as they see it to the world at large. Much is made at times of the power of citizen journalism, but perhaps one of the most important aspects of the trend is that webloggers seem to be developing quickly the personal relationships with their audiences that are calling forth from their online following the kind of trustworthy sources that used to require a lot of wining, dining and weekends to develop. If the words and the medium itself are the power that can draw out news sources the days of expense account journalism may become ever more lean. Call this an isolated example for now of where news sourcing is going, but as more people gain the ability to put their view of the world out to the world anonymously as well as personally the profession of journalism is going to emphasize online relationship building as much as face-to-face connections for a long time to come.
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