Washington Post media critic defends use of anonymous sources amid Trump firestorm

In firing FBI chief James Comey this week, U.S. President Donald Trump pointed to the bureau's failure to probe leaks to the media. In writing about the dismissal, the Washington Post cited no fewer than 30 anonymous sources. The paper's media critic says such sources are necessary to cover what has proven to be an "opaque" presidency.

Margaret Sullivan says lack of transparency in Trump administration makes anonymous sources necessary

U.S. President Donald Trump was interviewed by NBC's Lester Holt this week in the wake of the stunning revelation that he fired FBI chief James Comey. Trump was reportedly angry that Comey had not been investigating leaks to the media aggressively enough. (Joe Gabriel/NBC News/Associated Press)

U.S. journalists and White House staff alike were apparently caught off guard this week by news that President Donald Trump had fired FBI director James Comey.

Cable news networks went live with blanket coverage. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin called the firing "a grotesque abuse of power" by the president, MSNBC suggested it was "treasonous," and online news sites quickly began publishing varying accounts of what led to the firing. White House communications staff, meanwhile, scrambled to answer questions from the media.

In the days since, a bewildering array of contradictory narratives about the firing have emerged from the White House. Trump conducted a television interview with NBC's Lester Holt in which he said one of the reasons he fired the FBI chief was because Comey was too focused on investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia instead of the "real story" — leaks from the federal government to the media.

Consider then the irony that Comey's firing led to the Washington Post citing an unprecedented 30 unnamed sources in its next-day story about his dismissal.

Four reporters, 30 anonymous sources

​The Post's story, written by four reporters, said it had gathered "the private accounts of more than 30 officials at the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and on Capitol Hill, as well as Trump confidants and other senior Republicans, [to] paint a conflicting narrative centred on the president's brewing personal animus toward Comey."

The newspaper's media critic, Margaret Sullivan, says she's no fan of unnamed sources because of the lack of accountability and scrutiny they provide, but she defends the use of them in the Post's current White House coverage.

"There is no way to get at the story through talking to the White House press secretary or listening to the spin that is offered by officials who are willing to go on the record," she says.

'There is no way to get at the story through talking to the White House press secretary or listening to the spin that is offered by officials who are willing to go on the record,' says media critic Margaret Sullivan. Press secretary Sean Spicer and the While House communications were criticized for providing few and contradictory details about Comey's firing. (The Associated Press)

Sullivan talked about the story to CBC News for this week's edition of The Investigators, essentially agreeing with Trump that "there is a tremendous amount of leaking being done."

Since Trump won the presidential election last November, he's mused aloud about restricting access to the Washington press corps and even eliminating the daily White House media briefings. In a series of tweets on Friday, he reiterated that threat.

Sullivan, however, believes the news media's presence in Washington has become even more pivotal under a Trump presidency "because we are telling people things they need to know about an administration that is spinning and it's quite opaque."

  • The Investigators airs Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network. Also on the show this week: how CBC News investigated Canadian links to Russia money-laundering and a follow-up on a CBC Marketplace investigation into labelling of homeopathic remedies. 


Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.