Rhetoric and Writing in the Public Sphere: An Introduction/Transparency and the Public Sphere
Anonymous Sources and the Public Sphere
The media is essential to the public sphere, informing people who cannot remain constantly active in discussion. Journalism acts as a watchdog force to help the people regulate the government and any other force that threatens the well-being of the whole. Journalists are often the subject of scrutiny from the public, and the pressure to tell the truth weighs heavily on their shoulders. Burdened with this truth, members of the press often fight to release truth and take all necessary measures to uncover it. Occasionally, a journalist will receive information or a tip from a source that wants to remain anonymous. Approached with this dilemma, there are many steps that can be taken to ensure that the information is truthful and still serve the public sphere properly without deception. While some argue that the use of anonymous sources is detrimental to the public sphere, they ignore the benefits and how, when conducted in a proper manner, anonymous sources have proved to be worth the secrecy.
Anonymity, when granted, is not granted without careful deliberation. Sources that remained anonymous are reviewed by not only the writer, but also multiple editors within the publication. The Associated Press Style Book, which all major news sources follow and adhere to, dedicates an entire [page length] to the use of anonymous sources. “Use anonymous sources on when essential and even then provide the most specific identification of the source” (AP Style book 2004). With the increasing development of web sources and online news outlets, AP amended the entry on anonymous sources in 2009, elimitolnating evident loop holes. The new guideline specifies that the source must go through the approval of the news manager, must provide fact not opinion, be reliable and in a position to give accurate information and finally the information is only available through that source. Journalists also have the obligation to look deeply at the sources motives for revealing information and why they are so adamant about remaining anonymous. These changes mirror the shift mood in society, where people want to know where their news is coming from and have become more skeptical of those who wish to remain anonymous.
The benefits of remaining anonymous are wide spread, benefiting both the public and the source. In terms of the source, anonymity allows them to say what is necessary without fear of admonishment or penalty. This is often the case when a government employee steps forward to reveal a scandal or a terrible thing that is happening behind closed doors. Whistle-blowers, like Deep Throat in the Watergate Scandal, are rare and should be valued for their courage to approach the media with such vital information. Other sources conceal their identities for fear of retaliation from their employers or the people they revealed stuff about.
Reason to Remain Anonymous
Clark Hoyt, a public editor (or ombudsman) for the New York Times, offered some comments on how a reporter used an anonymous source in providing a character reference for a suspected killer. ”Washington… is a city steeped in the culture of anonymity”. Hoyt describes how official spokesmen have asked to be on background or off the record to add information but will formally be presented on that they had no comment. He offers an insight to why employees or government officials will ask to be off the record:
- All glory is supposed to go to the boss
- They disagree with the boss and are afraid of getting fired; they are talking about classified information and could be prosecuted
- They want to promote a policy, or kill it, by getting it out before it is officially announced
- They believe the public has a right to know about something that is being suppressed.
These are the reasons why anonymous sources should remain anonymous, when they are serving a positive purpose to the public. The Society of Professional Journalist has a widely published and used ethics code. Similar to the AP Style book, it is a source of reference in all types of news outlets. While not mandated, it is the ethics code that is most commonly followed. The code leads with the title Seek Truth and Report it, the overarching role of journalism in the public sphere is also encompassed in this simple title. In regards to anonymity, the code states “Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on a sources’ reliability.” The news industry was built to expose truths and keep the public informed and involved in the public sphere. SPJ upholds these values to this day, instilling the accountability in being a journalist. SPJ also encourages the deeper search into what prompted the request for anonymity; “Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises." This boils down to knowing before the interview that the source wants to remain anonymous and to delve into the background of the source, eliminating any who could personal vendettas against a company or person. This responsibility is solely on the shoulders of the journalist and their editors, if they unknowingly release falsified information to the public there are repercussions.
In newspapers and website, there are often published anonymous submissions and questions. While the internet is free-ranging and often almost anyone can publish things to an open forum blog, the newspapers hold the responsibility for what they send to the presses. An example in a smaller scaled public sphere is The Breeze at JMU. The Darts and Pats portion of the paper are comments submitted by anybody through an anonymous message. Through this, students have bravely voiced their opinions about anything on campus. Often these Darts and Pats are the talk of the school, while the sources remain securely anonymous. The difference between the publishing online and in the paper is the rigorous editing process that comments go through to filter out inappropriate or highly inflammatory submission. The internet often has no specific filter to prevent those types of messages. Also the quality of the postings weigh on the newspaper (or any other media that allows this type of publishing), forming a type of accountability for the release of statement. Anonymous Source is a website dedicated to “examining the merits of unnamed sourcing in journalism and anonymity in public discourse.” Author and creator, Matt Duffy, runs the blog to actively discuss the use and misuse of unnamed sources in journalism. He reviews the effect of keeping sources anonymous. Blogger Glenn Greenwald wrote “Unjustified anonymity — especially when mindlessly repeating what shielded government sources claim in secret — is the single greatest enabler of false and deceitful ‘reporting.’”
Criticism on Anonymity
Anonymous source, while not having to worry about the retaliation of bosses or peers, also do not have to take responsibility for their words. In the blog sphere, comments on news stories or candidates are not monitored; therefore someone could go about trolling various stories or sites, instigating arguments and harming feelings while experiencing none of the repercussions associated with announcing it in public. This type of anonymity is more detrimental than that which is regulated through writers and editors who have an obligation to report misdoings in the government and other public sectors that contribute to the public sphere. The journalist obligation often gets twisted when news sources prescribe to a specific partisan group, as many news sources are accused of doing now. The lack of bias in the news makes the use of anonymous source even more perilous. The sources could be used to push a political agenda without attributing the actions or words to a specific person. The viewer/reader does not have the verification that this was said by a trusted official or if it was simply manipulated to forward debates in a particular topic. If there is no objective sense of journalism presenting the truth to the public, than anonymous sources are just a piece of the deception.
There are times in this country’s history when anonymous sources have burst the bubble and opened America’s eyes to terrible things happening in our society. Not all the sources have amounted to this type of servitude to the public, most have hinder the public in ways that have caused several news organizations to ban the use of unnamed sources from their publications. “Major news organizations--including USA Today, the New York Times and the Washington Post--have tightened their anonymous sources policies.” Cases where journalist have used anonymous sources and refuse to break the confidentiality agreement have been fined or jailed.
The public sphere uses journalism as a watchdog for the government and other harmful corporations. While people grow skeptical about it’s ability to present fact equally and without bias, they still rely on the media to present them with the discussion topics and the news daily. Being the watchdog does not come easy, especially when there is limited access to information and sources. While people often fear what can’t be verified and what is not known, the use of anonymous sources often open’s the public’s eyes about problems that are happening right under their noses. Anonymity can breed negative things, like trolling and the ability to lie without consequence. Farhad Manjooo talks about truth and how it is a relative matter in the modern era. People see anonymity as untrustworthy and secretive, but it can be helpful and the only way to discover the truth under a mountain of government deceit. However, with proper vetting and researching, journalist can provide valuable
- Associated Press. Associated Press Style Book. 2004 and 2009.
- Hoyt, Clark. “No Comment. But You Didn’t Hear it from Me” New York Times. 28 Mar 2009. www.nytimes.com. 25 April 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/opinion/29pubed.html?ref=anonymoussources&_r=0
- Society of Professional Journalist. SPJ Code of Ethics. 1996. http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp?mobile=no
- Society of Professional Journalist. SPJ Code of Ethics. 1996. http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp?mobile=no
- Duffy, Matt J. Anonymous Sources. http://www.anonymoussources.org/?p=37
- Greenwald, Glenn. “The fundamental unreliability of America’s media: the proliferation of anonymity ensures pervasive falsehoods.” Salon. 12, Jan. 2010. http://www.salon.com/2010/01/12/media_254/
- Shepard, Alicia C. “Anonymous Sources” American Journalism Review (1994). ajr.org. Web. 25. Apr. 2013. http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=1596.
Transparency in an open government is often credited with generating government accountability. In a democracy, transparency allows citizens to control their government, reducing government corruption and bribery. However, when transparency and accountability are placed in powerful hands, a society can become astray. In Rupert Murdoch’s case, too much power with little accountability led to illegal telephone hacking that exposed the private lives of citizens, soldiers, celebrities, and the Royal Family. In our world of advanced media technology, how much is too much information? How can our public sphere continue to influence political action with unethical probes from media conglomerates? As Murdoch recently demonstrated, and continues to illustrate, too much power in one hand can cause massive disturbances in the public sphere.
Murdoch and News Corporation
Rupert Murdoch was born in Australia in 1931. After years of owning newspapers and one music label in Australia, Murdoch turned his sights to Britain. After acquiring News of the World in 1968 he also bought the failing newspaper The Sun. Moving to the United States in 1979, Murdoch created and launched News Corporation. In 1981, he bought the struggling Times and Sunday Times from a Canadian newspaper publisher . On September 4 1985, Murdoch became a naturalized citizen to satisfy the legal requirement that only United States citizens could own American television stations. In 1986, the Fox Broadcasting Station was launched, and venturing into new publishing technologies, Murdoch bought Twentieth Century Fox, Harper Collins in 1989, and The Wall Street Journal in 2007 . Now as an 81-year-old, Murdoch owns the second largest media conglomerate, News Corporation. By 2000, Murdoch’s News Corporation owned over 800 companies in more than 50 countries with a net worth of over five billion dollars .
As one of the most powerful and influential media companies in the world, News Corporation has the responsibility to abide by the rules of ethics and to be as fair and balanced with their information as possible. NewsCorp produces books, cable programming, films, magazines, newspapers, television, websites, and sporting events . NewsCorp affects the entire media world and because of this influence, accountability for illegal actions is crucial in a company as powerful as NewsCorp. One of the first purchases Murdoch made was News of the World, and NewsCorp continued to own and run the newspaper in Britain for more than 30 years until its last publication in 2011 . News of the World, once a credible newspaper, was turned into a tabloid newspaper once controlled by NewsCorp  . Most of the newspaper consists of minimal writing, with large images that aim to capture celebrity and political scandals. This aggressive journalism, along with the goal to expose shocking stories first, led to the demise and legal troubles of the historic newspaper.
Political Influence of News Corporation
Murdoch built his media empire on newspapers and now one, with increasing evidence against News of the World, could lead to his eternal downfall. With a scandal as complicated as phone hacking, and a company as large as NewsCorp, new doors of corruption are being opened as soon as one has been shut. The developing scandal is quite entertaining, but to fully understand the impact of this treachery, one must dive deeper into the affect it has had on our world politics and police control. Only then, when we see the full extent of NewsCorp’s influence, will we understand how dangerous powerful media can be to our everyday lives.
At the beginning of the year 2003, Andrew Coulson became the editor of News of the World  . Two years later, in November of 2005, a story was published regarding confidential information about Prince William and due to the personal nature of the story, the Royal Family launched a police investigation of News of the World, and the illegal tactics they had used to retrieve the information. In 2007, Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator for News of the World and Clive Goodman, the royal-family editor at News of the World are jailed for four and six months on counts of phone-hacking . Later, Coulson resigns as editor, claiming full responsibility for the hacking, but denying any knowledge of it. A few months later, Coulson is hired as communications director for the Conservative Party and its leader, David Cameron .
The hiring of Coulson to Cameron’s campaign was no coincidence. Rebekah Brooks, former boss of News International and subsidiary of News Corporation, highly recommended Coulson for the job because he was “acceptable” to News International . Although Cameron was leaning toward BBC senior journalist Guto Harri as his media director, Brooks ultimately helped make the decision to hire Coulson . Brooks said, “If you find something for Andy we will return the favour.” In 2009, after continuing investigations into the phone hacking scandal, and Coulson still on the chopping block, News Corporation’s The Sun and News of the World abandoned support for Gordon Brown and switched to David Cameron .
Many people questioned the sudden move from Brown to Cameron. Were political party leaders being swayed to hire individuals for support from the top media conglomerates? Coulson, although he was arrested in April of 2012 for phone hacking, was Cameron’s media director for more than three years. After his arrest, it was found that News International was paying Coulson while he was part of the Cameron campaign. The interference and persuasion of media moguls in the political sphere is dangerous. Powerful individuals are only looking to benefit themselves and their companies, not the countries needs.
Police Corruption and Operation Weeting
Although the political persuasion seems corrupt enough, during the investigations of the phone hacking scandal, it was found that News of the World was paying off and bribing police officers to silence investigations of phone and computer hacking while also using corrupt police officers to gain private information for articles . Operation Weeting was launched through the Metropolitan Police Service regarding the accusations of phone hacking, and the operation is being conducted alongside Operation Elveden . The operation is an investigation into allegations of inappropriate payments to the police by those involved with phone hacking. With 90 police officers involved with Operation Weeting, it was found that around 3,000 people had their phones hacked . During the investigations, documentation provided to Operation Weeting suggested that some police personnel might have accepted "inappropriate payments" from news organizations in return for classified information. In total, as of March 13, 2012, a total of 23 people have been arrested as part of Operation Weeting .
The investigation continues today, with Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch (his son), and Rebekah Brooks as main targets of the investigation. In July of 2011, amidst the phone hacking scandal, Murdoch announced that News of the World would end its 128 yearlong publication . Although many found this change positive for Britain, less than a year later, Murdoch announced he was creating The Sun on Sunday, widely seen as the successor of News of the World.
News Corporation and the Public Sphere
Everyday there are new updates on the controversy and Murdoch continues to be the center of attention in media news. Although the focus is centered on British media, News Corporation owns many influential outlets in America. One of the most prominent and conservative is Fox News. Before we believe everything we hear in the news, we need to check the sources and the power and money behind those sources. Rupert Murdoch is at the top of the food chain and by getting an inside look at the inner workings of his companies, we can begin to identify his agendas as a top media mogul.
The public sphere is affected by the media, and it is our job as educated and enlightened citizens to control what our government and media does. How much longer will we stand by while media conglomerates sway our politics for their own personal agendas? How have we allowed one corporation to gain so much power over our media, and consequently gain power over our everyday lives?
An increased discussion of government transparency in recent years has led to the creation of various laws and agencies seeking to decrease abuse of power and increase honesty about political action. These laws and agencies serve to protect individuals who seek to bring to light misinformation, scandals, or cover-ups. These individuals, referred to as “whistleblowers,” are typically members of organizations, corporations, or governments which the individual in question sees as guilty of some crime or wrongdoing. In a functioning democracy, it is necessary for citizens to be able to report these wrongdoings without fear of undue retribution. However, though whistleblowing is protected under United States law, the actions of these alarmists are rarely without consequence. The United States Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which serves to protect the rights of whistleblowers who speak out specifically against certain members or bureaus of the government, has been involved in multiple investigations and scandals. This has led to a decreased ability of the OSC to protect American citizens and an increased amount of wrongly punished civil servants.
Protection under U.S. Law
In 1989, the US government passed the Whistleblower Protection Act, seeking to protect workers of federal agencies who decide to expose misconduct. If any employee discloses evidence of “a violation of a law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety,” the federal agency employing them is unable to threaten them with termination of employment, wage garnishment, or other penalties. This process is overseen by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which was formed in 1979 as an independent agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting federal misconduct. The OSC serves to uphold three other statutes as well as the Whistleblower Protection Act, which include the Civil Service Reform Act, the Hatch Act, and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. The Hatch Act, specifically, serves to prevent civil servants from engaging in partisan political activity. The Whistleblower Protection Act, therefore, is often intertwined in cases regarding the Hatch Act, as many cases of whistleblowing concern partisan activity.
Scott Bloch Controversy
Scott J. Bloch was appointed as United States Special Counsel (overseeing the OSC) by George W. Bush in late 2003. However, his term as U.S. Special Counsel was marred by multiple acts of wrongdoing, partially involving the silencing of the very act of whistleblowing which he was supposed to protect. In one of his first motions as U. S. Special Counsel, Bloch ordered the removal of all mentions of sexual orientation nondiscrimination from all OSC materials, claiming the OSC had no authority to ban this type of discrimination. Bloch’s reputation as anti-gay was deepened when gay whistleblower Michael Levine’s case against a coworker at the U.S. Forest Service was dropped without investigation. Levine reported his case to the OSC after he had been falsely accused of possessing child pornography and was suspended for fourteen days. According to Levine, this retaliation was caused by his whistleblowing when he reported a coworker for running a sporting goods business from the government property where they worked. Levine, expecting the OSC to protect his right to expose government abuse under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, was shocked to see his case dismissed after a year of inaction by the OSC. The media and Congress officials, most notably Congressmen Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin, were quick to draw a connection between the dismissal of Levine’s case and Bloch’s preceding elimination of anti-discrimination rules applying to homosexual employees . However, the major complaint against Bloch was that his obvious agenda destroyed the non-partisan nature of the OSC, making it difficult (or, in Levine’s case, impossible) for workers to blow the whistle on their supervisors or fellow employees.
Whistleblowing within Corporations
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 is somewhat of a corporation version of the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act. Under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, also known as SOX, sought to decrease scandals and abuses of power within corporations. The act was triggered by the Enron scandal, which involved systematic fraud and intense corporate corruption. Interestingly, SOX Section 1107 specifically lists criminal penalties for those who are found to obstruct the act of whistleblowing within a corporation. Specifically, any individual who “knowingly, with the intent to retaliate, takes any action harmful to any person, including interference with the lawful employment or livelihood of any person, for providing to a law enforcement officer any truthful information relating to the commission or possible commission of any federal offense, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.” In other words, no corporation is allowed to retaliate against an employee who rightfully reports abuses, scandals, or violations of federal law within a corporation. Naturally, many corporations spoke out against the SOX, claiming that the implementation of a government channel for reporting abuse would unfairly increase the volume of whistleblowing. This, of course, would have the potential to increase the volume of government prosecutions of corporations. Though there was initially backlash from many major corporations about the implementation of this whistleblower protection law, it has already become a valuable addition to America’s corporate landscape. In 2011, Bank of America was found to have violated Section 1107 of SOX when an employee who reported abuse was fired. The employee was terminated from her position at Countrywide Financial Corporation (part of Bank of America) after reporting wire, mail, and bank fraud to the employee relations department. The case was taken up by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which deals with violations of SOX provisions. The employee was reimbursed for “back wages, interest, compensatory damages, and attorney fees”.
Importance of Whistleblowing in the Public Sphere
In a time of large governments and even larger corporations, it becomes difficult (if not impossible) to examine and analyze the motives and actions of all powerful individuals. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial that individuals within powerful entities have the ability to report on abuses of power without fear of retribution. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has consistently backed laws like the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, noting the importance of transparency in any society striving for democracy. According to ACLU Senior Counsel for Legislative Strategy Lisa Graves, “transparency is vital to American democracy, and whistle-blowers are those brave federal employees who bring hidden truths to light." However, there are obvious issues with the protection of whistleblowers in the current United States system. As demonstrated by the Scott Bloch controversy over the Michael Levine case, not even the government office responsible for overseeing whistleblowing claims is without corruption. In fact, Scott Bloch was repeatedly called to resign by various members of Congress after individuals working under him at the OSC became whistleblowers. A group of employees claimed Bloch acted in a hostile fashion toward them after they disagreed with his use of government power to promote an extreme religious agenda (which included Bloch’s removal of anti-sexual orientation discrimination mentions within OSC documents, as mentioned earlier). If the body responsible for protecting whistleblowers actively silences would-be whistleblowers within its own ranks, how can it be trusted to handle complaints from other government entities? Reform is slow and necessary within the protection of whistleblowers. The Whistleblower Protection Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley were positive steps to decrease silencing abilities of powerful bodies. However, these actions are necessary but not sufficient. Reform is still needed within the OSC, though a step in the right direction was taken in 2008 when Scott J. Bloch left his post in the office. However, one of the most crucial reforms needed is widespread knowledge of employee rights. If employees (both of government agencies and of large corporations) are aware and confident of their rights under the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley act, they may be less fearful of upper-level intimidation or retaliation. Reform necessarily begins with education, and our nation stands only to gain greater transparency and accountability through better enforcement of these measures.
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