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Be Wary of Anonymous Sources

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

The public's insatiable desire for content has led a number of so-called reporters to lower their standards and practice shoddy journalism -- biased, full of conclusions that were reached before facts were verified, reliant on anonymous sources who may have their own axes to grind.

The result is not news but fake news or, as we would call it in my hometown of Carrollton, Georgia, just plain gossip.

To clarify, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines "report" as "common talk or an account spread by common talk: rumor." The second definition is "a usually detailed account or statement a news report." Sadly, neither definition requires that the information included in the report be real. Nowhere is this practice more visible than in the mainstream media's reporting on the Trump administration.

On Tuesday of this week, The Federalist published a story by Mollie Hemingway called "Tips for Reading Washington Post Stories about Trump Based on Anonymous Leaks." Hemingway noted recent stories based on anonymous tips that were later shown to be inaccurate. Several of them concerned the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

"May 10, the Washington Post's Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Sari Horwitz, and Robert Costa claimed: '[Deputy Attorney General Rod J.] Rosenstein threatened to resign after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey ... said the person close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter."

The next day Rosenstein said, "I'm not quitting."

Here's another critique by Hemingway about another story published on May 10: "Ashley Parker wrote: 'Last week, then-FBI Director James B. Comey requested more resources from the Justice Department for his bureau's investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, according to two officials with knowledge of the discussion.'

"Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said reports that Comey had requested more funding or other resources for the Russia investigation are 'totally false.' Such a request, she said, 'did not happen.'"

The next day Andrew McCabe, the acting director of the FBI, said, "I believe we have the adequate resources to do it and I know that we have resourced that investigation adequately."

In response to Josh Rogin's reporting in the Washington Post "that Steve Bannon had personally confronted Department of Homeland Security's Gen. John F. Kelly to pressure him not to weaken an immigration ban," Homeland Security's Gen. John F. Kelly said, "It was a fantasy story," adding that the reporter's sources were "playing him for a fool."

This week, two stories came out based on leaks by anonymous sources. The first concerned President Trump's supposed disclosure of inappropriate information during a meeting with the Russian foreign minister. On Tuesday, National Security Director General H.R. McMaster said in response, "The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known...It didn't happen."

The anonymously sourced story was also disputed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy.

The second such story concerned a memo Comey had written, but the reporter(s) had not seen. The memo, read by an anonymous source, was about Comey's meetings with President Trump.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R, Utah, chairman of the Oversight Committee, issued a letter to acting FBI Director Andrew McCade Tuesday night.

"New York Times reported Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey memorizalized the content and phone calls with the President in a series of internal memoranda. At least one such memorandum reportedly describes a conversation in which the President referenced the FBI investigation of former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and said to Comey, "I hope you can let this go."

"According to the report, Mr. Comey created similar memos -- including some that are classified -- about every phone call and meeting he had with the president." Chaffetz requested McCabe to "provide, no later than May 24, 2017, all memoranda, notes, summaries and recordings referring or relating to any communications between Comey and the President."

It will be interesting to see if such a memo does exist and to see the whole contents of said memo. Until then, it might be best to remember that recent reliance on anonymous sources has often proven to be ill founded.

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