News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Anonymous Leaks Gain New Prominence In Trump-Era Journalism


The resignation of Michael Flynn as national security adviser came after leaks from anonymous sources inside the intelligence community. Anonymous sources have always been a source of tips for reporters, but they've been especially prominent in the first days of the Trump administration. Last night, President Trump called the American news media the enemy of the people. NPR's David Folkenflik joins us. David, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: When The Washington Post broke this story, they cited nine current and former officials and said they spoke on condition of anonymity. What kind of editorial decision-making goes in to having a report like this appear?

FOLKENFLIK: You can be sure that this rocketed up to the very top of the news hierarchy at a newsroom like The Post. Just the very fact that they took nine sources that they clearly went out of their way to try to check, cross-check, double-check and question what they were about to report that the stakes were that high, that the ramifications of what they were going to report would be so significant that they were going to take this very seriously indeed. And I think you can see that by the solidity of the reporting as far as we know so far. And I think that's also a reflection of how uncertain this story has been to date. You know, if - you may remember before the election, The New York Times had reported that the FBI had found that there were no signs of, you know, such contacts. And I think on this subject, there's a care being given by The Post, by The Times and by other serious news organizations.

SIMON: Don't reporters and editors have to ask themselves, why is this person leaking, are they just trying to settle a score or harm somebody else's advancement or otherwise have their own agenda?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they'd better, and I'm sure they did in this case. You know, if you think of the classic, most-famous source in Washington, that would of course be the one nicknamed Deep Throat - turned out to be Mark Felt, one of the very top officials at the FBI. As someone who has presented for decades as, you know, a vital check on anti-democratic impulses emanating from the Nixon White House, Mark Felt turned out to be a very canny bureaucratic infighter who had aspirations to the top job at the FBI. And yet, the information that he provided to Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, as the Watergate scandal unfolded, was invaluable. You have to be able to evaluate this. You know, one of the things that's being questioned is whether or not you're seeing civil servants or Obama administration holdovers somehow trying to sabotage Trump appointees from being able to do the jobs they wish to do. And of course, the powers of the state are so powerful these days that, you know, they can get damaging information on many of us.

SIMON: I noticed this week that both Breitbart News on the right and Glenn Greenwald on "Democracy Now" on the left suggested that security officials have a strategy of leaks to deliberately undermine the administration, which, after all, is a democratically elected government. Don't news organizations have to worry about this too, that they might be being used?

FOLKENFLIK: I think the very question of whether or not there is in sense a kind of insurrection within the administrative branch of government is itself a story. You saw The New York Times address it with an explainer about the concept of deep state, and that is the idea of powerful figures in government that endure from administration to administration. You see this in a lot of places that have quasi democracies but that - where non-democratic influences come to bear and often eject democratically elected leaders. That's not to say that's where we are at this point, but that is to say there are figures that obtain intelligence and can influence the fates of democratically elected leaders by their ability to leak. At the same time, leaks have emerged over the decades as another element of our system of checks and balances. That is that when policies are seen to break the law or to be against the mission of various agencies at times that - one way in which such information is ventilated is not that the press somehow strokes its chin and comes up with this thought. It's that this information is leaked to reporters.

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.