Following the surprise sacking of Fox News star Tucker Carlson on Monday, a cannonade of anonymous sources promptly shared the reasons for his dismissal with the press. But there was little consensus, as the sources conveyed dueling accounts.
Employers are usually tight-lipped about personnel decisions, mostly to avoid legal fallout should a fired worker regard their comments as defamatory. So it stands to reason why the company initially kept quiet on why Carlson was exiting in its anodyne corporate statement that thanked him “for his service.”
But the failure of the press to get much in the way of overlapping versions from their unnamed sources to confirm a consistent story should reduce our faith, already low, in the veracity of anonymous accounts.
The Daily Beast’s anonymous source attributed the firing, in part, to Carlson’s foul language. He allegedly used the “C word” to describe stolen election theorist Sidney Powell, and not just once. This information supposedly surfaced during discovery proceedings in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit. The Los Angeles Times relied on an anonymous source to say the firing “came straight from Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch with input from board members and other Fox Corp. executives,” and another alleging that the discrimination lawsuit filed by a recently fired producer on Carlson’s show was the cause.
At the Wall Street Journal, “people familiar with the matter” told the paper Fox was disturbed by the derogatory comments he made about the network in the Dominion documents, some of which were redacted but seen by Fox personnel. Anonymous Fox employees told Semafor they thought the discrimination suit and Carlson’s criticism of Fox executives, recorded in the court documents, had played a role. Rolling Stones’ anonymous sources spoke of an “oppo file” the network had kept on Carlson that would be used to retaliate against him if he spoke ill of Fox. The oppo file is said to contain information about workplace conduct, Carlson’s rude comments about Fox brass and colleagues, his lewd comments about women, and so on.
Surely the most fascinating anonymous tidbit appeared in Vanity Fair, where the source said that Carlson had gotten fired because Murdoch was annoyed by a messianic speech Carlson gave at the Heritage Foundation last Friday. “That stuff freaks Rupert out. He doesn’t like all the spiritual talk,” the source told the magazine. Such religious jabber, another anonymous source added in the piece, was behind the recent cancelation of Murdoch’s engagement to Ann Lesley Smith, a reputed Bible thumper who regarded Carlson “a messenger from God.”
The comic thing about the conflicting anonymous accounts is while they seemed sure they knew why Carlson had been knocked off, Carlson himself is said to not know. How do we know that? From anonymous testimonies in New York magazine and Vanity Fair.
The journalists who were called upon to file quick turnaround stories on the canning of Carlson have our sympathies. “Why” is the most vital component of the Who, What, When, Where and Why formula behind news stories. News consumers want to know abut Carlson’s firing, but after that’s out of the way, they want to know why. An editor either instructs his reporters to find a source who can supply the why, or he allows reporters to pepper their copy with anonymous sources because it makes it look like they’ve answered the “why.”
As we see in the Carlson example, the anonymous sources — who are variously described as a “Fox news source,” “people familiar with the matter,” “a source,” “another source,” “sources,” “eight sources,” “a source briefed on the conversation,” “people familiar with the company’s thinking,” and other fuzzy IDs — don’t fundamentally agree on the reason for his ouster. Now, it could be, as NPR media reporter David Folkenflik said Wednesday on the WAMU show 1a, that the reason for Carlson’s firing is a little like the plot of Murder on the Orient Express: Everybody might be a little bit right. But the variety of early “reasons” throws doubt on the practice of relying on anonymous sources.
When anonymous sources provide documentation or other ancillary proof of their statements such as recordings, they surface information that can be verified and do readers a great service. But in many cases, they get to spout off without taking any responsibility for what they say. Readers are often given no way to judge the credibility of anonymous sources. For all we know, the “Fox news source” cited could be upper management or a spring intern. Does the source have an agenda that is coloring his blind quotations? How hard did the reporter work to verify what the anonymous source said?
In the coming days, we’re likely to learn more about the decision-making behind Carlson’s removal as named sources step up or if documents from the discrimination lawsuit and the Dominion case filter down to reporters. But until then, we can use the early Carlson reporting as a warning for readers not to overinvest in breaking news that depends so heavily on anonymice.
As the investigative journalist Edward J. Epstein once wrote, “Every source who has supplied a journalist with part of a story has selected that bit of information, whether it is true or false, for a particular purpose.” When those sources are anonymous, they can be entirely unaccountable and absolutely wrong. Read all the anonymously sourced stories you like, but be forewarned that they can be detrimental to your news health. Especially when they take a place of primacy in breaking news like the Carlson sacking.
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