Yesterday a friend and I exchanged emails on the topic of newspapers use of unnamed sources and the tactic of trying to compensate for that by providing a brief (and often ridiculous) explanation for their anonymity. My friend had alerted me to one of the sillier of these formulas appearing in that mornings New York Times. A story on Egypts recent shifts in foreign policy quoted an official who remained anonymous because the issues were still under discussion in diplomatic circles. Now Im not sure whether the hue and cry about citing anonymous sources, although I strenuously avoided it in my reporting days, isnt overdone. But surely this kind of virtually meaningless justification for anonymity is ripe for parody, and I suggested as much to my friend. In no time at all, he came back with a litany of improvements on the current fashion: Blah, blah, blah, etc., etc., etc., the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because ...he didn't know what he was talking about....he didn't want to alert his wife that he wasn't where he said he'd be....he didn't plan to tell the truth....he did plan to tell the truth....he is suffering from short term amnesia and isn't quite sure who he is....he was embarrassed that if his name were used everyone reading the story would think "Who's he?"...he was saying off the record the exact opposite of what he said on the record yesterday....this reporter is ashamed to admit that the highest "official" that would talk to him was the doorman.Enjoy, or devise your own. By the way, my friend is a priest and former communications director of a prominent Catholic organization that has the words United States and conference of Catholic bishops in its title. He has been granted anonymity because he wants to avoid the appearance of having a sense of humor.
Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.