Unmentionables

Reg allows conservatives to blast foes-anonymously

To The Orange County Register's advertising slogan "You'll laugh. You'll cry," add "You'll be terribly confused."

For more than a decade, Register officials (including editor Tonnie Katz) have boasted that-unlike its rival, Los Angeles Times-the Registerhas (as the paper put it on March 24, 1991) "a policy against publishing information from unnamed sources." On that date, the paper told its readers (headline: "RegisterCourse Different on the Unnamed Source") that the Timeshad scooped them on a major story because Registereditors carefully observed the paper's anti-anonymous-source standard.

According to ombudsman Dennis Foley, the policy remains in effect. He said such a rule allows readers to judge the credibility of the paper's sources. "We carefully review stories to make sure we don't allow people to make negative comments and then hide behind them," Foley said.

But on Feb. 20, the Register published "Gray Davis Is on the Job-Actually, He's on Every Job," a story that relied almost exclusively on anonymous sources. Critical-and questionable-information in the story was attributed to the following unnamed individuals: "those close to Davis," "observers," "they," "the governor's defenders," "others," "one frustrated lobbyist," "some," "one person," and "several secretaries."

Did the Registerviolate its policy against using anonymous sources? According to executive editor Ken Brusic, no-because the policy isn't really a policy. "It's only a guideline" applied by Katz on a "case-by-case basis," he said. Brusic insisted the no-unnamed-source guideline is used more rigorously to Register-staff-written stories; the Feb. 20 article was written by Sacramento Bee reporter Dan Smith.

But on the same day the Register ran Smith's piece, the paper also published "Tran: Freedom Advocate or Egotist? The Little Saigon store owner with communist symbols is no stranger to controversy." That story-written by Reg staffers-failed to identify the source or specific details of the allegation that Tran "declared himself to be God." The Register's point was obviously to prove Tran is a nut; in reality, many religions-including Buddhism-see each human as a manifestation of the divine.

Attempts to clarify the point-what evidence does the Register have that Tran has declared himself God? If he did make such a claim, what did he mean?-were unsuccessful. The story's reporting team-Hieu Tran Phan, Vik Jolly and Mai Tran-did not return repeated calls.

When asked about the source of the claim, Brusic said he assumed it was Tran himself, but he conceded that the source "should have been" identified.

Still, a larger question remains unanswered: If the no-anonymous-source policy/guideline is good enough for Register-written stories, why isn't it good enough for all articles the paper publishes? "We keep bumping up against [this issue]," Brusic said. "It's difficult." He acknowledged that "there is an unresolved inconsistency," but he didn't seem eager to resolve it, claiming "our only other option would be to withhold stories from our readers."

(There's not a lot of withholding going on. The Registerpublished stories that used phrases such as "unnamed sources said" and "anonymous sources said" more than 2,353 times in 1998, according to a computer-database search.)

Nevertheless, Brusic said stories written by outside reporters who rely on anonymous sources generate "conversation" among the paper's editors. Before publishing such stories, Brusic said the editors ask themselves, "Does the story appear credible?"

It's almost inconceivable that Smith's Feb. 20 story could have met that standard. Smith argued that Davis' then-46-day-old Democratic administration was already "plodding" and that California's state government had effectively "stalled" after Republican Pete Wilson left office. Did he cite any proof that the government has stalled? You decide. In the lead to his story, Smith alleged that "there have been times" (note the plural) when Davis has argued for 20 minutes about which of his secretaries should make a trip to Federal Express. If you suspend good judgment and accept Smith's claim that this exact incident has happened more than once, who gave him the story? Answer: anonymous sources. The Register's espoused discomfort with unnamed sources was belied on Feb. 24, when the paper's opinion writers leveraged Smith's unnamed sources into an editorial-page attack on Davis.

The bulk of Smith's evidence that state government has collapsed is that Davis has not immediately filled all 2,000 political-appointee slots. What he didn't report (and apparently Register editors didn't know or care to know) was that far from being a crisis, Davis has made 251 key appointments, including the top slots in every major department. For context, consider that Wilson took more than twice as long (100 days) during his first term to name his 12-person cabinet.

Using unnamed sources, Smith also noted that Davis has ordered government employees not to issue policy statements without his approval-evidence, Smith suggested, that Davis is unstable or even paranoid. One might more reasonably argue that policy statements are the governor's to make. Nor did Smith see the need to reveal another critical fact: many of the state employees Davis has ordered not to issue policy statements are disillusioned Republican-installed bureaucrats held over from the Wilson administration, those most likely to be among the anonymous sources quoted throughout.

Chris Campaña, the governor's spokesman, summed up Smith's story nicely. "It was a classic non-story story," he said.

Maybe it's time for the Register to drop the pretense. Most news organizations long ago recognized that an anonymous source may often be the only way to get critical information to the public. But don't hold your breath. The year started with Katz "pledging" in a New Year's resolution that the Register's coverage "will set the highest standards" for accuracy and fairness. "In short," she wrote, "we will convince you that we haven't lost either our values or our value." Readers may take a lot more convincing. Just seven weeks later, like a fat person whose momentary resolve melts before the mammoth Circus-Circus buffet, Katz is struggling to keep her resolution.

 
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