WASHINGTON – President Trump tweeted his disgust about anonymous sources again the other day, saying they're fake, which served to remind me that "Thelma Louise" was very, very real.
She was one of the best sources I ever had, this Thelma Louise, even though I never met her and never knew this person's real name.
But I want to tell you a little bit more about her as a springboard into an explanation of how reporters typically use anonymous sources and how they don't.
My first encounter with Thelma came via email back in the early 2000s, when she contacted me out of the blue to say she had information about the Seneca Nation's plans to build casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca.
A few days later a treasure trove showed up in my mailbox: documents the Senecas had filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs about their casino plans. The return address showed the package came from "Thelma Louise."
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
I never knew if Thelma worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or if she was a Seneca, or both. But she made clear she was afraid the average Seneca would not benefit from the tribe's casinos – which is why she was anxious to share the inside information she had about them.
That led to several important stories over the course of five years: "Casinos would extend Senecas' sovereignty," "Loophole looms in casino deal," "Vast land purchase possible for tribe Senecas' strategy could remove large parcels from tax rolls," and others.
So thanks to Thelma Louise – who named herself after the 1991 movie "Thelma and Louise," about two women on the run from the law – Buffalo News readers knew more about the Senecas' casino plans than they ever otherwise would have.
Strange as it may sound, this is all fairly normal in one way. Many times on the most significant stories, anonymous sources don't appear in our stories as an attribution, as a "sources said." They serve as the hidden hand, guiding us to the truth. Often they do it as Thelma Louise did, by sending us documents that the politicians and bureaucrats would rather that you not see, documents that would be heavily redacted – if not entirely unavailable – through the Freedom of Information Act.
At other times, anonymous sources will point reporters to documents that otherwise might be hard for us to find. For example, in 2005, an anonymous source steered me to faulty data the Air Force used in recommending that the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station be closed. Sure enough, a few weeks later, the base closure commission reversed itself and kept the base open.
Similarly, a guy I met at a Buffalo Bills bar turned me on to government emails that led to a story I did in 2014 about a secret, abandoned plan to remove truck traffic from the Peace Bridge.
Now sometimes reporters do use anonymous sources in the way the president complains about. Sometimes we cite them as the basis for our stories.
People who cover the White House full-time use anonymous sources in this way fairly frequently, just because a culture of leaks has developed in Washington over time in which sources often dish to reporters to try to steer the news narrative.
But most reporters, this one included, base stories strictly on anonymous sources only when absolutely necessary.
My coverage of the 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 would not have been the same without the regional airline pilots who spoke to me on the condition that I not use their names. Those pilots feared they would be fired if their names became public, but they wanted to tell of the horrid working conditions they faced – like being pressured to fly while ill.
That story cited eight anonymous sources. The News rule, which is standard in journalism, is that we cannot report something until and unless at least two anonymous sources tell us the same thing.
That rule meant that, when my friend and colleague Robert J. McCarthy got a tip last year that congressional ethics investigators were probing Rep. Chris Collins, both Bob and I had to labor for a couple days until I nailed the second source that allowed us to do the story.
I have worked for newspapers for 35 years now, in Albany, Buffalo and Washington, and every reporter I have come to know has labored over the use of anonymous sources in exactly the same way. What I have seen tells me the president is wrong: We don't make up anonymous sources.
Sometimes, though, anonymous sources try to spin us. For example, this past weekend I did a story about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's allies and their attempts to pressure Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray out of his race for Congress in favor of Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. I left out one very juicy angle, just because three different anonymous sources told me three very different stories about it. That being the case, I followed one of the oldest rules of journalism: When in doubt, leave it out.
Which brings us back to Thelma Louise. She never gave me reason to doubt her. I verified every document she ever sent me as authentic.
So Thelma, if you're out there, thanks for never steering me off a cliff.
And thanks for all the great stories. I owe you lunch or something. So please shoot me another email – or another treasure trove of documents.
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