Ukraine Tips From Nameless US Officials: Good Enough for the New York Times

Apparently the people who know best about what’s happening in Ukraine are US government officials who won’t let their names be printed in the newspaper.

New York Times report by Andrew Roth (6/23/14) notes that while Russian President Vladimir Putin was sending supportive messages about a possible peace deal, “the United States said last week that it had evidence that Russia was preparing to send more tanks and artillery to the fighters in eastern Ukraine.”

If Russia is “preparing to send more,” that implies that it’s already sent some–and that the New York Times has evidence that this is the case.  There has been no shortage of coverage attempting to explicitly link Russia to these rebel groups, but the stories have often fallen apart under examination (FAIR Blog, 4/23/14).

Michael GordonBut that doesn’t stop the Times from letting government officials float these stories. In a June 20 piece, the Times granted a US official anonymity to lay out a rather detailed scenario of Russian subterfuge. Under the headline “As Ukraine Announces Cease-Fire, White House Points Finger at Russia,” reporters Michael Gordon and David Herszenhorn wrote that that the White House was “accusing the Kremlin of continuing to covertly arm the rebels.” Of course, if you are “continuing” to do something, you are already doing it. (For those keeping score, Gordon was the reporter who had to walk back his “scoop” about Russian troops in Ukraine, and was one of the Times‘ most prominent reporters on its bogus Iraq WMD stories).

The new case the Times laid out was based entirely on anonymous claims from the US government–or, as the Times put it, “American officials added another element to an increasingly complex situation.” The paper spells it out:

“We have information that Russia has redeployed significant military forces to its border with Ukraine,” a senior Obama administration official told reporters on Friday. “Russian Special Forces are also maintaining points along the Ukrainian border to provide support to separatist fighters.”

The paper then alluded to an earlier State Department accusation that “three aging Russian T-64 tanks had been sent to Ukraine,” and that the Ukrainian government was claiming that there were 10 more tanks. The Times also noted:

Adding to Western concerns, the senior Obama administration official said, artillery has been moved to a deployment site inside southwest Russia and may soon be shipped across the border.

Not only are the anonymous claims of one official the source of the information–they also provide the analysis of that information, floating a slightly-too-perfect theory that Russia is handing over old equipment in order to make it seem like they’re not actually doing so:

American officials said Russia was providing older weapons that its forces had phased out but that were known to remain in the Ukrainian military’s inventory.

“The desire here is to mask the Russian hand” by allowing Ukrainian separatists to claim the weapons were captured on the battlefield, the administration official said. The official asked not to be identified by name, in line with the Obama administration’s protocol for briefing reporters.

Mr. Putin appears to be calculating that he can continue to provide military support to the separatists without triggering tough economic reprisals as long as the Kremlin denies that it is involved and avoids obvious provocations, like sending conventional Russian military units into eastern Ukraine, American officials said.

Spy (Antonio Prohias)

This line jumps out: “The official asked not to be identified by name, in line with the Obama administration’s protocol for briefing reporters.” While there’s no reason to doubt that the official didn’t wish to be named, it’s worth remembering that the Times has its own set of guidelines about granting sources anonymity, a privilege that is supposed to happen rarely and should be accompanied by some explanation.

The Timesguidelines state that “we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons.”

The Times piece throws in more background from their source because…well, why not:

The senior Obama administration official told reporters that some Russian forces near Ukraine had taken up positions that “are within a handful of kilometers of Ukrainian territory, the closest that they’ve been since the invasion of Crimea.”

“We also have information that additional forces are due to arrive in coming weeks,” the senior administration official added.

Earlier this year, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan (3/18/14) wrote that she was going to start paying closer attention to this with a series called “Anonywatch.” In a recent blog post (6/17/14), she noted, “When sources are nameless, they are also unaccountable. There is no price for them to pay when they get it wrong. But readers—and the Times‘ credibility—do suffer.”

You can quote her on that.

Articles by: Peter Hart

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