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The Murphy’s Law Of Journalism

sign with CBC logo reading 'This Way, Please'
photo by Kris Krug

Call it Murphy’s Law of Journalism: When your “anonymous” source tells you one thing, which you report without corroboration, only to have the same “anonymous” source say the opposite to another journalist as well as to authorities.

And so the tale of a self-proclaimed Islamic State group executioner from Canada becomes a cautionary tale for what has gone so wrong in the news media today. The most basic rule of journalism – to check out what your source tells you before you put your own name behind the story – is often disregarded in a chase for audience, bolstered by a sense among too many reporters and their editors that such rules are meant not for them but for other, lesser talents.

The Canadian man in question, known by his nom de guerre Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi, spoke to both the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and The New York Times, but his stories involved serious inconsistencies, both internally and between the two news organizations. Most starkly, he told the Times that he had personally killed prisoners, but insisted to the CBC that he had merely witnessed such killings.

The CBC interviewed Huzaifa in late 2017, more than a year after he returned to Canada. The Times said it had spoken to Huzaifa prior to that, in a series of interviews that began just after his return in 2016, but only recently aired the interviews as part of the “Caliphate” podcast. The podcast itself delved into the complications of attempting to verify Huzaifa’s claims, and host Rukmini Callimachi described on Twitter the inconsistencies in the timeline he outlined for her team.

Both Callimachi and Nazim Baksh, a producer at the CBC, had agreed to conceal Huzaifa’s identity due to the man’s fear of reprisals. But now both outlets are in a position of having based stories on a source demonstrably willing to lie. “It raises a really difficult question that us journalists have, you know, of whether he lied to me or he lied to Rukmini Callimachi, or he lied to both of us,” Baksh said.

Since the “Caliphate” episode in question went live, Huzaifa has been interviewed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but has not been charged. He has also been questioned by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. But some members of Canada’s House of Commons have angrily questioned why he has evidently been allowed to go about his business in whatever place he currently lives in the wake of the “Caliphate” reporting.

So, to sum up, the New York Times knows the identity of its source, presumably by his legal name as well as his nom de guerre. So does the CBC. So do the Canadian police and intelligence services. So, for that matter, do the so-called executioner’s former comrades in the Islamic State group, or at least any surviving members who were involved in getting him to Syria in the first place or in helping him get back to Canada.

Who doesn’t know? Well, the community where this self-described misfit currently resides, which may or may not be Toronto. And many of the people who know the individual from before and after his time in Syria, who might be able to shed light on the veracity of the story he told the Times.

Anonymous sources have their place in journalism, of course. Ideally, they are sources for documents – think the Pentagon Papers – whose authenticity can be determined, and which otherwise speak for themselves. Or such sources provide tips that can be confirmed through other avenues. It is when the source itself becomes the story that there is the greatest chance for trouble, and the least reason to consider the journalism credible.

For a contrast, look at the Times and New Yorker stories that broke open the Harvey Weinstein scandal last year. Although they used anonymous sources, they also had on-the-record allegations of Weinstein’s long trail of misdeeds. The journalistic success was in getting those sources to come out publicly. This led to a cascade of additional on- and off-the-record details of Weinstein’s conduct, which in turn gave rise to public, on-the-record descriptions of depredations by many other men in positions of power against colleagues who were usually, but not always, female. The #MeToo movement sprang directly from those stories.

Could the same thing have happened if the original reporting about Weinstein were done solely with anonymous sources? I think it’s unlikely. In fact, in the absence of those public accounts of his behavior, Weinstein’s lawyers would likely have succeeded in suppressing the stories in the first place with credible threats of defamation lawsuits. Nobody in journalism wants to follow the trail Gawker blazed to oblivion.

In fairness to the Times, murderers and terrorists do not ordinarily hand out business cards or post Google ads giving their names and contact information. The lurid tale reported in the newspaper’s podcast may very well be true in substance, if not in detail. Or it may not. The Washington Post had to return a 1981 Pulitzer Prize that it won for a fabricated account, “Jimmy’s World,” about an 8-year-old heroin addict. The rationale for publishing that anonymously sourced fiction by a reporter named Janet Cooke is not unlike that which is cited for protecting Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi.

This story is part of a larger picture in which today’s journalists proclaim themselves to be above such niceties as fact-checking, or the entire legal process. When a top aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee was under investigation for allegedly leaking information to no fewer than three reporters, including one with whom he had an intimate personal relationship, authorities checked journalists’ phone and email records to investigate his denials of any contact. When those contacts appeared in their records, he was indicted for lying to investigators.

Nobody forced any journalists to appear before a grand jury and name their sources. The reporters and their alleged source were simply sloppy in how they communicated, and the source may end up paying for his breach of loyalty to his employer, not to mention his country. The journalism community is up in arms over the idea that its own records could be subject to examination under valid legal process, even as it proclaims its First Amendment right (which I support, by the way) to lawfully publish virtually all secrets that come into its possession by any means.

The stance is foolish and arrogant in equally large measure. And it goes a long way toward explaining why the press is held in such low esteem today, and why so many people are so willing to swallow questionable information from practically any source at all. If the most prominent news outlets don’t verify what they report, why should readers or viewers expect better of anybody else?

The reporting on Weinstein shows what determined, methodical journalists can accomplish, as long as they can find credible public witnesses or documents to support the facts they assert. Too bad such reporting has become a noteworthy exception in today’s media world. We are regularly subjected to lazy and whiny diatribes that purport to tell the audience not only what has happened, or at least might have happened, but also what the audience should think about it.

So next time you read or see something startling on the news – check it out for yourself.

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