Anonymous Sources Want to Try DeLay in the Press

That's my recommendation for supplying the missing description of sources' motives in the Washington Post's DeLay Team Weighed Misdemeanor Plea to Save GOP Post by R. Jeffrey Smith on A1:

Lawyers for Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) tried unsuccessfully in late September to head off felony criminal indictments against the then-majority leader on charges of violating Texas campaign law by signaling that DeLay might plead guilty to a misdemeanor, according to four sources familiar with the events.

The lawyers' principal aim was to try to preserve DeLay's leadership position under House Republican rules that bar lawmakers accused of felonies from holding such posts. DeLay was forced to step down as leader on Sept. 28 after the first of two grand jury indictments....

What follows is an exceptionally detailed account of events that led to prosecutor Ronnie Earle's indictment of DeLay. It is based extensively on anonymous sources--mostly if not completely on the "four sources familiar with the events." The gist is that in presumably confidential talks, DeLay admitted knowing about an illegal transaction before it took place, rather than after, as he has said publicly.

From the Post's Policy on Sources (posted in conjunction with a recent column by the Post's new ombudsman, Deborah Howell):

In some circumstances, we will have no choice but to grant confidentiality to sources. We recognize that there are situations in which we can give our readers better, fuller information by allowing sources to remain unnamed than if we insist on naming them. We realize that in many circumstances, sources will be unwilling to reveal to us information about corruption in their own organizations, or high-level policy disagreements, for example, if disclosing their identities could cost them their jobs or expose them to harm....

In cases where a source is actively trying to persuade us to put something into the paper, but refuses to be identified, we should request a publishable reason for concealing the source's identity....

Obviously, it is important to share with readers any direct interest our sources may have in the story we are writing. When sources have axes to grind, we should let our readers know what their interest is. Smart sources, particularly in government and increasingly in business, know how to tempt reporters with juicy stories. Smart reporters and editors know how to avoid letting them spin us for their own purposes.

Who's to say whether Smith's four anonymous sources shopped the story to him or not. Either way, we're left in the dark as to their interest in the case. And their motive for leaking? A pure striving for the public good may not be it.

We are compelled to infer, so I will: They want to damage DeLay. To put it another way, they wish to use the shield of anonymity to attack someone else by name. Or this: They want to counteract damaging public accounts of Earle's unusual procedures (briefly, grand-jury shopping) and DeLay's public claims of innocence by disclosing private conversations in which all the key parties are named except... themselves.

But all is not lost. From the sources policy:

Sources often insist that we agree not to name them in the newspaper before they agree to talk with us. We must be reluctant to grant their wish. When we use an unnamed source, we are asking our readers to take an extra step to trust the credibility of the information we are providing. We must be certain in our own minds that the benefit to readers is worth the cost in credibility.

Hey, at least they feel bad about it.

Cross-posted at PostWatch