Responding to reader complaints about The Washington Post's Dana Milbank's use of an "anonymous secondhand quotation from Sen. Barack Obama," Post ombudsman Deborah Howell chastised Milbank for citing the source anonymously and for imputing a particular interpretation to a quote he did not witness. Howell found that "[n]either [Jonathan] Weisman nor Milbank called the source" to confirm their interpretation of the quote.
Responding to reader complaints about Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank's use in a July 30 column of an "anonymous secondhand quotation from Sen. Barack Obama" to characterize Obama as "presumptuous," Post ombudsman Deborah Howell chastised Milbank for citing the source anonymously and for imputing a particular interpretation to a quote he did not witness. Howell wrote in her August 10 column: "Anonymous quotes should be used sparingly; this one wasn't worth it. If you weren't there, be careful about judging the context." Further, Howell found that "[n]either [Post national political reporter Jonathan] Weisman nor Milbank called the source" to confirm their interpretation of the quote.
In a July 31 online chat, Milbank addressed criticism of his July 30 column by referring to such criticism as "whining," and wrote: "House Democratic aides got up Thursday morning and decided that the quotes looked bad. While not challenging the quotations themselves, they said that the quotes were out of context. This is interesting, because our source -- who was among the people complaining about the quotes yesterday -- sent us the quotes in writing in an email Wednesday night. Evidently no recording was made, so we'll probably never know the exact wording."
And in an August 7 online discussion, Milbank asserted: "My colleague Jonathan Weisman and I believe the quote was correct as written, and that this supposed 'context' is a recreation, after-the-fact, by Democratic aides who were worried about how the quote looked. Perhaps Obama didn't mean for it to come out that way, but there's every reason to believe it did."
However, as Media Matters for America has noted, Weisman did not share Milbank's certainty about their initial interpretation of Obama's alleged quote. While Weisman wrote in a July 29 entry on the Post's political blog, The Trail, that Obama "was beginning to believe his own hype," he later updated it to report that "House leadership aides pushed back against interpretations of this comment as self-aggrandizing, saying that when the presumptive Democratic nominee said, 'I have become a symbol of the possibility of America,' he was actually trying to deflect attention from himself." In an August 8 online chat, Weisman called his own position "a little more squishy" than Milbank's flat assertion that the context provided the next day was "a recreation, after-the-fact." Weisman further wrote, "I can't say whether the first rendition was more accurate than the second. I can say those providing the second rendition had good reason to supply context that would nullify the first. I can also say I trust the suppliers of both renditions."
From the August 10 Washington Post column "The Anger Over an Obama Quote":
Readers and partisans -- about 160 -- said the quote was taken out of context or misinterpreted. Their anger was mainly focused on Milbank, who used the quote as part of a sharply written critique of Obama as his party's "presumptuous nominee."
There was no tape and no transcript of Obama's talk, but the quote came from someone who told me that the quote didn't reflect arrogance. Here's where it gets tricky for me; I dislike most anonymous quotes, including this one. I figured out who the source probably was and confirmed my suspicion by talking with him, but no journalist should ever reveal another's source except in the gravest of circumstances.
Neither Weisman nor Milbank called the source. Weisman considered the source more or less official and didn't use his name, even though the source didn't ask for anonymity in the e-mail. Weisman said he has "an understanding going back years that he is giving me privileged information from closed meetings; it is by definition on background. With someone you interact with constantly, there just aren't the formalities of sourcing on every conversation and e-mail." Milbank called the source "unimpeachable. When he gives you a quote you can take it to the bank. You don't need to go around verifying it with others."
Several lessons can be learned here. For reporters: Anonymous quotes should be used sparingly; this one wasn't worth it. If you weren't there, be careful about judging the context. Treat readers well; we need them.