Consuming Journalism: Jeffrey Goldberg and the declining credibility of unnamed sources

[Note: I botched this in its original form. I started writing Consuming Journalism features a couple of years ago as an exercise in reading journalism more critically. In the original post, I let my frustration with unnamed sources steal the spotlight. I want Consuming Journalism to be a clinical, dispassionate look at Who What Where Why When How.]

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg is in the news for his article alleging that Trump insulted WWI Marines, Vietnam veterans, and just about anyone who has put service to country before self. Here's the headline -

Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’
The president has repeatedly disparaged the intelligence of service members, and asked that wounded veterans be kept out of military parades, multiple sources tell The Atlantic.

If Trump said that, it would be inexcusable. The losers are the politicians, neocons, and members of the military-industrial complex who send Americans to fight in Vietnam and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of us are the suckers who keep falling for it.

But does the article help anyone make an informed decision about whether Trump said those things and in what context? No. Too many unnamed sources and vague access descriptions.

Goldberg claims (vaguely) that his sources were or are high-level members of the U.S. Government. Here are some examples.

...Trump rejected the idea of the visit [to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery] because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day...

"...according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day..."

When McCain died, in August 2018, Trump told his senior staff, according to three sources with direct knowledge of this event, “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral,” and he became furious, according to witnesses, when he saw flags lowered to half-staff. “What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser,” the president told aides.

"...according to three sources with direct knowledge of this event..."

On at least two occasions since becoming president, according to three sources with direct knowledge of his views, Trump referred to former President George H. W. Bush as a “loser” for being shot down by the Japanese as a Navy pilot in World War II.

"...according to three sources with direct knowledge of his views..."

But according to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his [Robert's] father and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

"...But according to sources with knowledge of this visit..."

“He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself,” one of Kelly’s friends, a retired four-star general, told me. “He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.”

An unnamed retired four-star general.

We know there are important, valid reasons for journalists to use anonymous, unnamed sources. But in some cases the use of unnamed sources renders the article meaningless, perhaps leading even more people to question the value of journalism.

I saw a clip online in which Goldberg said that he tried to get the sources to go on record, and that it's obviously preferable to have named sources. He said they refused, which forced him and The Atlantic to decide whether the interests of the public or the public's need to hear the information outweighed the concerns about unnamed sources. They proceeded with the article. I think they made a bad call. Goldberg should have refused to run the article unless the sources went on record.

The article gives us just enough information to ensure that we can all read it according to our biases. I did.

The Atlantic article has led to other articles citing unnamed sources. For example, John Roberts, Jennifer Griffin, and Tyler Olson wrote this for Fox News:

Sources dispute claim Trump nixed visit to military cemetery over disdain for slain veterans, but back up parts of Atlantic report

One hopes that the reporters went to lengths to find different unnamed sources and guard against the possibility of circular reporting, but it's impossible to tell. The problem is clear in the following sections from the article.

But a former senior Trump administration official who was in France traveling with the president in November 2018 did confirm other details surrounding that trip, and had a different account of the canceled cemetery visit.
The source said that during the trip, the president was not in a good mood, angry at something the French president had said and questioning the need to go to two cemeteries. Trump apparently was warned he'd get bad press for canceling. The source also said there was no security reason not to drive to the cemetery, which was about 40 miles from Paris.

And that's all I've got. Nothing brilliant or profound. I hope everyone is safe and healthy. Question what you read. Who wrote it, why, and how'd they get the information?