On “Planet Hillary,” no one has a name

In tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine, Amy Chozick delves into the political intrigue surrounding Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions. The online hubbub over the article, titled “Planet Hillary,” actually began on Thursday, when the magazine cover art was released, to widespread bewilderment:

Anyway, I got around to reading the piece today and couldn’t escape an uneasy feeling about it. It took me a few minutes to realize that “Planet Hillary” was a vintage Politico-esque creation. It deals almost entirely in political maneuvering and the “who’s-in-who’s-out” hysteria endemic to public figures and their extensive entourages. More damningly, it is almost completely devoid of policy discussion.

Granted, there is a place in political journalism for fluffy, narrative-driven, gossip-heavy recaps of the Washington social ladder. But generally speaking, The New York Times has not been that place. (The reliability of that axiom is one major reason I’m a subscriber.) In fact, it is perhaps because of the Times’ historical reticence to portray the constant power shuffling within American politics as equivalent to its counterpart in a typical high-school cafeteria that “Planet Hillary” seemed to meander so aimlessly and conclude in such a random way: the Times simply isn’t good at this kind of thing. Which is itself a good thing.

But after several further minutes of reflection, I noticed a much more specific problem with the piece: it is utterly stacked with anonymous statements and characterizations. To quantitatively confirm my suspicions, I re-read the article, this time marking every statement by any source (including quotes, paraphrases, and descriptions) that met the following criteria:

  • It was made to Amy Chozick in the course of her reporting for the article (so “James Carville has compared the Clinton world, perhaps not so originally, to an onion” doesn’t count, because that statement happened outside of Chozick’s reporting)
  • It was attributable to one person only (so “Several people close to Clinton have already discussed installing someone to play the role of ‘chief listener'” doesn’t count either, since it represents an aggregate of multiple conversations)
  • It was explicitly attributed, whether anonymously or otherwise, to a person (so “When Ready for Hillary held a seminar for donors at Le Parker Meridien hotel last fall to discuss what it would take to win in 2016, Bill Clinton personally checked in with an attendee to ask what was being discussed and who was there” doesn’t count because the anecdote wasn’t directly attributed to any particular source)

Keep in mind that these are extremely conservative criteria. There are, for example, multiple statements attributed to “several people close to Clinton,” “several people close to the Clintons,” “several others,” and “others,” to name a few examples. These I did not count, as it is conceivable that the sources’ collective anonymity was more a function of Chozick’s concision than her sources’ desire for discretion.

I was also, of course, careful to include all instances of named (that is, not anonymous) sources. Consider the following passage from the article:

A few months later, over lunch near the White House, Reines laughed as a couple of meddlesome emails popped up on his BlackBerry from two older Clinton loyalists who had re-emerged since she left State. In between bites of a shrimp cocktail, he called these noodges “space cowboys,” referring to the 2000 film in which Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland play aging pilots who reunite to disarm a Soviet-era satellite on one last mission.

I counted this as a named statement, despite the fact that it’s only two words long (“space cowboys”). I’m also counting it as a separate named statement from another quote earlier in the same paragraph by the same source, solely because the statements occurred at different times chronologically. (Elsewhere, I counted him again in an innocuous comment about the names of his kittens.)

Despite all of these precautions, 18 of the 36 statements — exactly 50% — that were made to Chozick in the course of “Planet Hillary” were anonymous (19 of 37 if I’d counted “a foundation spokesman,” which didn’t seem designed to provide discretion, but rather to avoid introducing too many irrelevant names). Here were a few representative examples:

  • “Legally she could not participate in fund-raising or political activity, and so the period, noted one staff member, seemed like a quiet four-year pause.”
  • “Until recently, her seven personal aides worked out of a tiny Washington office (‘smaller than my first N.Y.C. apartment,’ one aide said in an email) on Connecticut Avenue.”
  • “She ‘inspires loyalty, and she’s loyal back,’ another person close to the inner circle says.”

(Emphases mine. You can check my count by viewing my spreadsheet here. Yellow-highlighted rows represent anonymous statements.)

The “Guidelines on Integrity” document available from The New York Times Company’s web site has this to say about anonymous sources:

Anonymity and Its Devices. The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. When possible, reporter and editor should discuss any promise of anonymity before it is made, or before the reporting begins on a story that may result in such a commitment. (Some beats, like criminal justice or national security, may carry standing authorization for the reporter to grant anonymity.) The stylebook discusses the forms of attribution for such cases: the general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source. While we avoid automatic phrases about a source’s having “insisted on anonymity,” we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons. The Times does not dissemble about its sources does not, for example, refer to a single person as “sources” and does not say “other officials” when quoting someone who has already been cited by name. There can be no prescribed formula for such attribution, but it should be literally truthful, and not coy.

Similarly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage states:

[A]nonymity is a last resort, for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. Reporters should not offer a news source anonymity without first pressing to use a name or other helpful identification…

If concealment proves necessary, writers should avoid automatic references to sources who “insisted on anonymity” or “demanded anonymity”; rote phrases offer the reader no help. When possible, though, articles should tersely explain what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, and should shed light on the reasons. Anonymity should not shield a press officer whose job is to be publicly accountable. And, given the requirements of newsworthiness and substance, it should not be invoked for a trivial comment: “The party ended after midnight,” said a doorman who demanded anonymity. (If the doorman simply refused to give his name, that is a less grandiose matter, and the article should just say so.)

Anonymity must not become a cloak for attacks on people, institutions or policies. If pejorative remarks are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor. The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.

It is quite clear that the three nameless quotes I excerpted above, as well as others like them, fail to meet the Times‘ threshold for granting anonymity. In some cases, Chozick’s usage is directly contradictory to policy. If anonymity “should not be invoked for a trivial comment,” then the statement by the “one aide” (quoted above) on the size of Hillary Clinton’s Washington office, for example, is certainly a violation of the rule.

Anonymous statements have long been a source of contention with readers, a point Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has raised multiple times. (A 2009 article by a previous public editor for the Times, Clark Hoyt, cited a study finding that almost 80 percent of anonymous statements in the newspaper failed to meet the official New York Times standard.)

“Planet Hillary” seemed to me to be an especially egregious case, as the underlying substance of the article was already paper-thin. The anonymous statements simply added to the puffy feel of the piece itself and contributed to an overall sense of (mostly banal) palace intrigue. Here’s hoping to see less of this in the future.

Post Revisions:

About Jay Pinho

Jay is a data journalist and political junkie. He currently writes about domestic politics, foreign affairs, and journalism and continues to make painstakingly slow progress in amateur photography. He would very much like you to check out SCOTUSMap.com and SCOTUSSearch.com if you have the chance.

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