Anonymous sources keep the government honest.
One of my favorite West Wing quotes is when CJ Craig, the fictional White House Press Secretary, discusses how leaks are a necessary part of governing: “There is no group of people this large in the world that can keep a secret. I find it comforting. It’s how I know for sure the government isn’t covering up aliens in New Mexico.” Leaks keep the government honest. Without Deep Throat, we wouldn’t have known that Richard Nixon attempted election fraud. (Which was the point of the Watergate break-in; to steal campaign documents from the DNC.) Without the Pentagon Papers, it might have taken years to uncover the incompetence within the Pentagon, and dishonesty from the White House, that undercut our efforts in Vietnam. Anonymous sources give the public necessary information about corruption and incompetence, and are the ultimate defense against the creation of secret conspiracies that would be against the public’s best interest.
But anonymous sources also ruin lives.
A classic-but-modern example of this is Richard Jewell. Mr. Jewell was working as a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He spotted a suspicious bag, called it in, and started moving people away from it. It turned out, that bag contained a bomb. Mr. Jewell saved lives that day.
But then the FBI began to suspect that maybe he was involved in planting the bag in the first place, so that he could play the part of hero. They never had any hard evidence of this–only a general profile gathered from Mr. Jewell’s work history that was similar to people who had done this in the past. He was the FBI’s primary suspect for almost three months before he was officially cleared. (The bomber turned out to be a right-wing anti-abortion activist; he was caught about a decade later.)
All of that would have been fine–except for that someone in the FBI leaked the fact that Mr. Jewell was a suspect to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. That anonymous source triggered every major news paper in the country–and many internationally–to dig into his past. He received death threats, he became unemployable, he had the media stalk him and his family. The FBI had absolutely no evidence linking Mr. Jewell to the bomb, and yet it destroyed his life in a very real way. (Eventually he received an apology from the FBI, he settled a liable suit against several major news outlets, got a job as a Sheriff’s Deputy in Georgia, and died of diabetes a few years ago.)
So I like leaks. I want people who work in government to tell dirty secrets to reporters. But I also want those reporters to exercise restraint in what they publish. The people do not have a “right” to know every last detail. Reporters who fail to understand that have no place in the business.