What I Learned from Frosty Landon and Rich Martin

Frosty Landon

Once upon a time, journalists exercised great caution in their use of anonymous sources. When I was a reporter for the Roanoke Times & World-News some 30+ years ago, the editorial staff under the leadership of Frosty Landon and Rich Martin agonized over the use of unidentified sources. When we did use them, as sometimes we had to, editors insisted upon knowing their identities and their possible political or personal agendas, and we alerted readers when such agendas might exist.

How far the profession has have fallen.

Two days ago the Washington Post and New York Times, two of the country’s most prestigious newspapers, didn’t merely use anonymous sources in stories about the Mueller report, they used anonymous hearsay.

Here is the lede of the New York Times article (my emphasis):

Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations.

Rich Martin, appearing on C-Span

The information doesn’t come from the investigators directly. It comes by way of “associates,” who may or may not be the same people as the “government officials and others” quoted. We know nothing about these government officials and “others.” Moreover, we don’t know how many investigators supposedly share these reservations. Two or three out of the 19 lawyers, 40 F.B.I. agents and other personnel involved on the Mueller team? Ten? Twenty? How representative are their views? And who are the people conveying those frustrations to the media? Might they have a political agenda? How well informed are those sources? How might they be deliberately shaping the narrative?

Here’s the Washington Post lede:

Members of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team have told associates they are frustrated with the limited information Attorney General William P. Barr has provided about their nearly two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether President Trump sought to obstruct justice, according to people familiar with the matter.

The way both ledes are constructed, we can’t even be sure this is second-hand information. This might be third-hand information. From the way these paragraphs are constructed, it’s conceivable that “people familiar with the matter” are quoting “associates” who conversed with “members” of the special counsel team.

Another concern: What are the odds that the NYTimes and the WaPo reporters independently stumbled across the identical story on the very same day and wound up describing their sources in exactly the same way? I’d say nil. Far more likely, one of those “people familiar with the matter” pitched the story to both newspapers. And if they pitched the story, they clearly had an agenda. Do we know what that agenda is? Neither newspaper tells us.

Perhaps these sources are truly well informed. Perhaps they are conveying information fairly and accurately. Or maybe they’ve picked up scuttlebutt, massaged it, and passed it along to the Times and Post. Or worse, maybe they’re feeding the newspapers total garbage. As readers, we have no way of knowing.

It’s not as if the Times and Post have the best track record.

A Yahoo query on “Washington Post retractions” yields 713,000 results.

A Yahoo query on “New York Times retractions” yields 1,630,000 results.

I can tell you one thing: As reporters at the Roanoke Times, we never would have been allowed to publish such stuff. Frosty and Rich would have demanded that we get the information directly from the source, and even then they would have grilled us on why we couldn’t publish the source’s name. And justifiably so. Every reporter has had the experience of someone telling us that So-and-So said such-and-such, and then when we checked it out, So-and-So said no such thing. People will make all sorts of claims when protected by anonymity. Even when they think they’re telling the truth, they often garble the message.

From what I remember of their politics, I would guess that Frosty and Rich are no fans of Trump. But I can’t imagine that either one would countenance the slipshod journalism used to attack him today. They would build their case against the President the old-fashioned way, brick by brick with on-the-record sources.

One thing I can promise you, neither Steve Haner, who also studied at the knee of Frosty and Rich, nor I will ever quote anonymous sources who quote other anonymous sources who quote yet other anonymous sources. That’s not the way we do journalism at Bacon’s Rebellion.

Correction: In a cutline above, I incorrectly stated that Frosty had taught at the University of Missouri. Rather, he was profiled by the University of Missouri. Frosty surely would have chastised me for such a careless mistake — and I would have fully deserved it!

There are currently no comments highlighted.

27 responses to “What I Learned from Frosty Landon and Rich Martin

  1. Don’t do a search on Steve Haner retractions…..had to write one on my first published sports story in 1972. Why they tried to make me a sports writer….Nice to think about Frosty and Rich again. I know well that stare Frosty is displaying…

    Meanest thing I ever did to a politician was quote him or her accurately. That’s the first step with Trump, too. He’s his own worst enemy.

  2. I understand there is a time and place for anonymous sources (Watergate) but this is past the pale of understanding. Totally agree. People shouldn’t wonder why I dropped TV, and dropped most news sources. Even medical information is out of hand. Too many meta studies and not enough studies.

  3. The world is a far different place today. Newspapers, media are increasingly losing “scoops” to social media – which has become a firehose of “information” – a lot of it false and a little of it – true.

    Your favorite target is the “liberal” media but if you look around
    you’ll see FOX News generating a plethora of similar stuff… Briebart, InfoWars, PJ Media, etc, etc… all of them “reporting” for “sources”.

    Traditional media “standards” have weakened, no question, they are under tremendous pressure to stay alive in a world where “news” is no longer coming just from traditional media.

    If you’re damning WaPo/NYT for publishing anonymous leaks – and you are fair about it – you better include WSJ and FOX, ROLLING STONE and others. They all do it now.

    We no longer have “gate-keepers” of info and we were all LAZY to think that information was the pure truth to start with – geeze the Cigarette Companies totally subverted the media on a pack of lies… and I’m sure some of us remember a guy named McCarthy.

    Today, it is OUR responsibility to NOT rely on one or even two news “sources” to get the truth. You have to WANT to KNOW and seek the answer from a variety of sources – understanding that ALL of them now do this.

    We ALWAYS had this responsibility and in today’s Social Media environment do you REALLY THINK that folks in the FBI and not going to “leak”? Really, just about any agency will do it.

    And when someone inside of the Richmond govt “leaks” something, we call it “transparency” and “accountability”. 😉

    Moral of the story. You cannot stop social media. Forget it.

    Second Moral: in the age of the internet – there is a huge irony – disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories and outright lies infest the internet.

    Don’t blame whoever does this – you can’t stop it. You have to be responsible for yourself for decerning what’s true or not. Blaming the leakers and the media is a fools’ errand.

  4. I agree with Larry’s assertion that “you have to be responsible for yourself”.

    I couldn’t disagree more with his assertion that “blaming… the media is a fool’s errand.”

    If we hare to sustain a democracy we must have a responsible 4th Estate. Accordingly, we all have a responsibility to do everything possible to drag the “mainstream” media back to Frosty’s standards. It is a civic and moral responsibility all the more imperative because of the phenomena Larry describes as the Internet and social media.

    • re: “blaming the media”.

      you have to ask yourself what is THE MEDIA these days?

      It’s much more than the traditional media – and the traditional media is
      in direct competition with other media and, in fact, struggling to survive and that pressure is pushing them to behave as their competitors do.

      What exactly would you do to control media anyhow?

  5. Jim,
    Your retraction links make no sense. I tried to trace them back and found only a few.
    The Roanoke Times is a good paper but is obviously in a different league than the WaPo and NYT. Rules are different. Overseas, they are even more different but it doesn’t mean that the journalism is bad.
    It is stupid to whine about dragging the media from the brink. The U.S. industry has lost nearly half of its news workers in two decades. As a journalist for 45 years, I applaud the Post and Times for keeping up the good work. As for the Mueller report, release it. That would bring clarity.

    • So, if I understand you correctly, Big League journalists are justified in employing different — laxer — standards than Rinky Dink journalists, All I can say is, don’t be surprised if ig League journalists continue to suffer an erosion of credibility.

  6. The reality is, yes. You haven’t worked in D.C., New York or overseas. I have. Let me give you an example. When I was on the foreign desk for BusinessWeek in New York I would sometimes edit a column on international relations. If the Washington bureau would write it, they would have to give it to us for editing. I’d often find it filled with anonymous sources but I had better reporting from overseas. I would stick that in instead. DC was pissed because unless their source recognized his anonymous quote he might not talk to BW again. That’s reality. Foreign journalists often operate by a different set of ethical rules.

    Also, can you explain the yahoo cites? I can’t believe the number of “retractions.”

    • OK, you quoted anonymous sources. Did you quote anonymous sources quoting other anonymous sources , in other words, hearsay — to establish matters of fact rather than matters of opinion?

      If you did, I’ll have to evaluate what I read from the foreign press very differently,

    • So, the fact that you detest Trump justifies a different set of journalistic standards than you would apply to anyone else.

      There are many legitimate reasons to dislike Trump — reasons that don’t require anonymous sources quoting other anonymous sources to document.

      In your loathing of Trump, you don’t seen to understand how establishment media have discredited itself and caused a large sector of the electorate to tune it out. It’s like the boy crying wolf. When the media publishes strong, well-documented, credible stories critical of Trump, people have ceased believing them. That’s a bad thing. Trump is a chronic purveyor of false facts and falsehoods. The country needs a credible media to correct him. Sadly, our media is no longer credible. You may think it is because you agree ideologically with the WaPo and NYTimes, but half the country does not. And stories like the ones I cited are why.

      • Why would a reputable newspaper ever publish uncorroborated claims of 3rd hand anonymous sources?

        Why would a reputable newspaper ever build an entire article on the uncorroborated claims of 3rd hand anonymous sources?

        Why would two reputable newspapers of national reach ever build entire articles on the uncorroborated claims of 3rd hand anonymous sources and publish them of their front pages?

  7. One more thing, Jim. The mid-level markets back in the 70s and 80s were journalistic monopolies. Papers like the Roanoke Times, Pilot and RTD had no real competitors. They got fat and happy on lots of ads and juicy margins. TV stations would do even better. I have had more than one occasion where a good story, fully attributed, was killed or toned down because someone in the story was friends or former college m with a member of the family who owned paper. Your two traditional editor role models might have their views on attribution and anonymous practices, but interference from the owners was a much bigger threat to journalism, at least in my experience.
    Now that we have an unstable man in the White House who has many, many unsavory connections (paying off porn stars?) I say it is great the Post and Times what they are. Back in the 1970s, the Pilot could afford to put me and another reporter up in Bethesda, Md.for weeks to research Nuclear Regulatory Commission files about Vepco’s nuke plants. Never happen today!

  8. My last point. To be clear, in my example at BusinessWeek, I would usually sub in an attributed source from an overseas bureau instead of an anonymous source from DC. BusinessWeek had to be very strict with its ethics in this country and abroad because it could face prosecution from the SEC and others.But it is true that reporters from other countries do have somewhat different values, notably, the British.

  9. My assumption is that the folks on Mueller’s team, upset about what they see as unfair or incomplete summary of their report, are using friends as conduits to reporters because they still feel obligated not to talk to the press directly about their work. The reporters are fully aware of this arrangement and who the primary sources are and agreed to the conditions. Or, the folks on Mueller’s team could be the ones talking to reporters on the condition they be referred to as associates of members of Mueller’s team.
    No, this is not the ideal way to report a story, but these are extraordinary times. The attention span of the public is short in this era of the Internet and instant news and opinions get formed fast and then folks move on.
    When (if) the report comes out, the Post and Times may be vindicated, or not.

  10. Jim,
    Anonymous sources and leaking in Washington hardly started with Trump. What’s amazing is that Mueller kept a lid on things until now.
    Reed. How do you know the material was “uncorroborated.”
    Peter

    • Reed. How do you know the material was “uncorroborated?”
      Peter

      Because it was not corroborated. And, if it was, these people would be admitting to their own breaking of the law. At best they then would be lawbreakers, and are likely liars to boot. The two newspapers are their agents and abettors. What a jaded sick world.

  11. Long-time occasional lurker now slipping out of the cracks. I’ll join Pete, by adding a few points. One, over the past four decades as a reporter for local and national publications I have seen and experienced a significant tightening in the use of anonymous sources. Their use had grown exponentially in the post-Watergate-reporting years. By the early 1990s, the pendulum completed its swing and overuse was followed by limitation.
    And as for the attacks here on the Times and Post for the Mueller-staff pushback stories, I’ll note that the better, more seasoned, more reliable reporters are more likely to be given license to use anonymous sources. The editors have developed trust in them. That’s important to keep in mind. These are good freakin’ journalists, and they don’t like the shame and embarrassment of getting something wrong. And yes, they sometimes make mistakes.
    The implication here is that they’re partisans grinding axes.
    The example you give to buttress that is less convincing than the use of a third-hand source. That number of 1-million-plus for a Yahoo search of the terms “New York times retractions” offers nothing concrete for your argument. It sure looks like you’re talking about stories being wrong because of anonymous sources, but I expect that would be a miniscule fraction of the search results. Hey, I put “Bacon’s Rebellion” and “retractions” through Yahoo and got 100,000 hits. (If I did it correctly. I’m not sure, because, unlike your search, I got a big round number.) You might say, “Yeah, but.” But that’s the unqualified number.
    For cryin’ out loud and for example, time and time again The New York Times has taken hook/line/sinker directly from the unsophisticated cane pole wielded by the shamefully shameless Rudy Giuliani – from touting Trump’s unprecedented “cooperation” with Mueller’s investigation, to chasing down various rabbit holes on obstruction and collusion that kept them from thinking “conspiracy.” Current cherry on the top, about the Barr non-summarzing summarization of Mueller, besides one or more with “exoneration” there was this hed: “Cloud Over Trump’s Presidency is Lifted.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/24/us/politics/trump-robert-mueller.html
    I started to lay down a marker last week when you joined the president in his victory lap and excoriated the press for being critical of Trump as (for me, a too thin, too stretched, non-pertinent) part of the lede for your piece about Portsmouth’s former police chief. That and other victory laps presume far too much about Mueller’s report from reading only Barr’s audacious spin.
    As for the “agenda” behind sources contacting the Times and the Post at the same time, I see no need for clutching pearls. The agenda was a simple one: people who ran the investigation are not happy with Barr for what can be reasonably argued appears to be Barr’s attempt to cover up the significance of the findings. That’s a story, and some very good reporters took it.
    I am of the belief that we will get the full Mueller report. Prediction: it will be tediously thorough and present a unified field theory that accounts for the why and how of every deed and misdeed. In other words, everything taken together will yield an undeniable – and undeniably ugly – scenario in matters of obstruction and conspiracy. (WARNING: Mileage will differ significantly for viewers of Fox News, which is, empirically shown, far and away the biggest abuser of facts and truth. (Recently Jane Mayer and the NYTimes wrapped that one up rather tightly. And there are plenty of empirical studies of Fox by journalism scholars. Hey, call’em fake.)

    • My goodness. That is quite a dump! Where do the sane start?

      “These are good freakin’ journalists, and they don’t like the shame and embarrassment of getting something wrong. And yes, they sometimes make mistakes.”

      Play tell, what have these good freakin’ journalist gotten right?

      “The implication here is that they’re partisans grinding axes.”

      Surely, you must be kidding? Have you no awareness of what has been going on around you for decades, any whatsoever?

      “Hey, I put “Bacon’s Rebellion” and “retractions” through Yahoo and got 100,000 hits.”

      Might you have confused your Bacon Rebellion with the one in the 1600s? Just a thought.

      “That and other victory laps presume far too much about Mueller’s report from reading only Barr’s audacious spin.”

      How do you know? Have you read the Mueller report?

      “As for the “agenda” behind sources contacting the Times and the Post at the same time, I see no need for clutching pearls. The agenda was a simple one: people who ran the investigation are not happy with Barr for what can be reasonably argued appears to be Barr’s attempt to cover up the significance of the findings.”

      Again, you must kidding. You and cohorts have lead the nation on a Fool’s Errant for the last 2.5 years, and been totally wrong on the story the entire time. Now you tell us to believe a bunch of third hand anonymous sources alleged to have been told something by people breaking the law and the oath of silence, violating their obligations to the nation, and Mueller himself.

      And now your “Laying down your marker” because “(Jim Bacon) joined the president in his victory lap and excoriated the press for being critical of Trump as (for me, a too thin, too stretched, non-pertinent) part of the lede for your piece about Portsmouth’s former police chief.”

      Why would anyone believe your report, given this rant you’ve sent us? Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised. You’ve perfectly illustrated the problem of a deeply corrupt and bias MSM.

    • Welcome, Terry, from out of the cracks! I hope you will remain as more than an occasional lurker.

  12. and Jim, can you send the links showing the hundreds of thousands of retractions by the Post and Times. I clicked on but didn’t get what you claimed. Thanks

  13. We’re talking about journalistic standards. You say you used to adhere to standards that are no longer maintained by the papers you name. Yes, times have changed, but have the standards? Who set those standards back in the 70s and who sets them today? Does Fox News or MSNBC adhere to those standards today? Does the WSJ or the NYT? Who enforces them, and what can a plain old subscriber/reader do to complain about his favorite media’s transgressions?

    Or — are there no enforceaable journalistic standards whatsoever, except what the traditional publisher or editor chooses to enforce within his own purview? Are we talking about mere media conventions, mere sentimental memories of editors of yore back in the grand old days of the print media?

    Come on, Jim — we dispute, even litigate, everything these days, why should the media itself be exempt from having any standards?

  14. So I ask, WHERE did these “standards” come from AND how come some media totally disregards them much of the time while others are expected to hew to them no matter what?

    So here’s the question to separate the men from the boys.

    Do you think the Government should be allowed to LEGALLY compel ANY “journalist” for ANY media to name their anonymous source?

    Because other than that – how would you really define what is a standard for ALL media and enforce them?

    Is this what the critics of WaPo and NYT really want and do you really want it applied to ALL media – FOX News included?

  15. I remember hearing of the legend of Frosty and worked at the TRT during Rich’s last few years there. Yes, he and his successors would not have allowed reporting like that. There is no transparency to it either. Readers deserve to know a much clearer explanation of where the information came from. The fact that it’s so unclear ought to tell you something. It also ought to make us question all the things we might not like about Trump. What other opinions we have of him are because of slipshod reporting? Willing to bet some of them. I’ve seen some of the reasons for excusing this in the comments. There’s no excuse for not following the simple ethic of transparency. That only happens when you let your bias rule your decisions.

    • Great insight, Jeff –

      With regard to seeing through bogus biased journalism, the blinders dropped from my eyes during the 1st Reagan / Carter debate. During that debate, it dawned slowly on me that the Washington Post had been lying to me for years about Ronald Reagan. The actor wasn’t dumb or out of his depth at all. Nor was he a mad dunce who wanted to blow up the world. Quite the reverse, he showed Jimmy Carter to be the man who was out out of his depth, a decent but inept president. The Post kept up its phony reporting throughout the Reagan presidency, a newspaper out of its depth on what was really going on in the world. We shouldn’t be surprised. The uncommon thing was having a man of Reagan’s quality, wisdom, strength and competence in the White House.

  16. Let’s never forget that the Post endorsed two rapists (by #Metoo standards), Bill Clinton and Justin Fairfax for office. Clinton twice. And remember that, with the exception of charges against her husband, Hillary Clinton has said many times that women making allegations of sexual abuse against men should be believed.

    If Bezos shut down the Post tomorrow, most of America would not notice.

Leave a Reply