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What's Your Source?

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Newsweek reports this week on the expansion of executive power under the Bush administration. Its story includes an anecdote about James Comey, who, while serving as acting attorney general when John Ashcroft was hospitalized in the spring of 2004, balked at approving the administration's plan to step warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens:

Miffed that Comey, a straitlaced, by-the-book former U.S. attorney from New York, was not a "team player" on this and other issues, President George W. Bush dubbed him with a derisive nickname, "Cuomo," after Mario Cuomo, the New York governor who vacillated over running for president in the 1980s. (The White House denies this; Comey declined to comment.)

If the White House denies Bush ever did this, then how are we to judge whether it actually happened? The story, unfortunately, never tells us. No source is given for the anecdote; the story simply presents it as fact, introducing it by saying "Newsweek has learned" about "ferocious behind-the-scenes infighting" in the administration. The only previous reference to sources for the story refers to one unnamed lawyer said to be "deeply involved" in antiterror efforts, but it's unclear whether he or she passed along the information about Comey and Bush.

I'm not a huge fan of unnamed sources, but I think using them is fine, if it's the only way to get the real story out. But I also think readers get justifiably annoyed when stories don't spell out why sources should be believed--or, as in this case, provide any concrete information about sourcing at all.

 

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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