Should Jonathan Karl Reveal His Benghazi Email Source?

Sources Who Mislead Reporters Don't Deserve Anonymity

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The controversy surrounding the editing of the administration's Benghazi talking points took an interesting turn on Monday when CNN's Jake Tapper reported that a newly obtained email from White House aide Ben Rhodes written during the editing of those talking points "differs from how sources inaccurately quoted and paraphrased it in previous accounts to different media organizations."

Tapper was referring, in part, to a May 10 report from ABC News' Jonathan Karl, who in that report claimed to be citing both administration "emails" and "summaries" of those emails, provided what appeared to be direct quotes from those emails, and said on air that he had "obtained" them. Karl reported the emails suggested the White House had been deeply involved in crafting a political response to the terror attack that occurred at the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi September 11, where four Americans were killed. The ABC exclusive, accusing the administration of having "scrubbed" vital information from the talking points, ignited a controversy about the White House's handling of the attack.

Referring to the emails quoted in the ABC piece, Tapper stressed that, "Whoever provided those quotes and paraphrases did so inaccurately, seemingly inventing the notion that Rhodes wanted the concerns of the State Department specifically addressed."

(Both the Rhodes email and those of the State Department bolster testimony from then-CIA director David Petraeus noted, the talking points were changed to avoid interfering with the ongoing investigation into the perpetrators.)

As Media Matters noted, Karl responded by explaining that he had not actually reviewed the emails himself, but had been "quoting verbatim a source who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes." He added that the source "was not permitted to make copies of the original e-mails," indicating that Karl's original piece was based entirely on his source's summaries.

Karl insisted that the summaries represent an accurate take on the emails.

But the email obtained by CNN makes it clear that in at least one key instance Karl's source, who he quoted "verbatim," got the emails' contents wrong, leading to a misleading picture of the process by which the talking points were edited. 

Was that error accidental? It's hard to imagine how simply writing down the contents of an email could lead to such a glaring discrepancy. And the administration's release yesterday of roughly 100 pages of emails detailing the exchanges between administration aides around the creation of those talking points does even more to put out the fire that Karl helped to ignite. This raises the question of whether misinformation was passed along to Karl deliberately in order to create a political firestorm.

The revelation that the source passed along inaccurate summaries of the emails raises troubling questions for Karl and ABC News: Do Karl's bosses know who the source is who misled the reporter? And do other reporters at ABC News regularly use, and trust, the same source?

Another key question is whether Karl should reveal the source who misled him. While journalists take seriously the vow to not reveal the identity of confidential sources in exchange for the information that those sources provide, it's not unheard of for journalists to reveal source identities if it's proven that that person badly misled a reporter or passed along bogus information. Some observers think that's what happened in the case of the Benghazi talking points.  

"The answer here is that Karl pretty clearly got burned by his source," wrote Talking Points Memo editor, Josh Marshall.

Reporters enter into an agreement and give anonymity to sources in exchange for information, and specifically, in exchange for reliable information. But when sources pass along provably false misinformation, and particularly when they do it a plainly partisan fashion, the nature of that agreement changes and under some newsroom interpretations, reporters are no longer bound to keep secret the name of the unreliable source. In fact, it's sometimes argued reporters are obligated to 'burn' their source in the name of disclosing attempts at misinformation.  

"Some journalists adhere to a code where the pledge of anonymity is broken if the source lies," noted the New York Times' then-managing editor, Jill Abramson, in 2009.

This newsroom ethics issue was raised prominently during the Valerie Plame leak investigation under the Bush administration.  While the White House was sparring with anti-war critics, such as Valerie Plame's husband, Joe Wilson, who accused the administration of manipulating intelligence, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote a column pushing back against Wilson. Citing "two senior administration officials," Novak named Wilson's wife and identified her as a CIA "operative on weapons of mass destruction.'' Outing an undercover CIA employee is against the law and Novak's column sparked a criminal investigation to determine who had provided him with that information.

At the time, the New York Times' public editor, Geneva Overholser, noted that journalists ought to speak out against ethical lapses by their sources. She advised the following [emphasis added]:

In this case, then, journalists should call upon Mr. Novak to acknowledge his abuse of confidentiality and reveal his sources himself -- thereby keeping the control of confidentiality in journalistic hands rather than in those of the legal system.

Should Karl follow the same advice? 

ABC News
Jonathan Karl
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