Ever since the whistleblower dropped a dime on President Donald Trump’s Ukrainian “ drug deal,” the establishment press has tied itself in knots over whether we should publish the whistleblower’s name. While insisting that it is protecting the informant by withholding details that would put him at risk, the press has danced a sloppy burlesque, stripping off a feathered boa here, a slip skirt there to reveal most if not all of the whistleblower’s bare skin to careful readers.
Shortly after news of the whistleblower’s complaint to the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community surfaced in late September, the New York Times didn’t name the informer but instead sketched his identity in extremely fine strokes. At least three people confirmed to the paper that the whistleblower was a male CIA officer who had been detailed to the White House but had since gone back to the agency. Furthermore, the context of his complaint indicated that he was savvy about the law, Ukrainian politics and European foreign policy. With identifying details like these, the Times might as well have printed the whistleblower’s face on a commemorative postage stamp and sold it over the counter. The Washington Post and the Associated Press quickly matched the Times’ reporting on the whistleblower’s general outline.
His name, however, was deemed unworthy of public dissemination. “I’m not convinced his identity is important at this point, or at least important enough to put him at any risk, or to unmask someone who doesn’t want to be identified,” New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told the Washington Post. The Post took a similar position, with spokeswoman Kris Coratti saying the paper wasn’t naming names because it “has long respected the right of whistleblowers to report wrongdoing in confidence, which protects them against retaliation.” In general, the establishment press has limited coverage to echoing, but not expanding, the Times’ scoop. (My first whistleblower piece did the same.)
Although CNN advanced the story slightly on Oct. 3 by revealing that the complainant was a registered Democrat, the establishment has continued to largely avert its eyes from the whistleblower’s identity. Bloomberg News, NBC News, Fox News Channel, and other outlets have issued internal and sometimes public announcements about not reporting the man’s identity. POLITICO has also limited its coverage of the whistleblower’s identity to echoing the Times’ coverage, but Editor Carrie Budoff Brown has not committed the publication to keeping the whistleblower’s name out of its pages should POLITICO independently confirm his identity.)
By leaving the whistleblower’s mask intact, establishment outlets believe they’ve navigated their way to the right side of the ethical line. But the whistleblower’s identity has become a political issue, and all this press coyness—giving this much information and no more—puts the country’s top publications at risk of losing the trust of their readers. This approach enforces the prejudice that the establishment press is run by a bunch of high-handed, hypocritical elites. It also surrenders a newsworthy story to elements of the right-wing press unencumbered by the Times’ ethical sensibilities when it comes to revealing supposed names of Trump critics and publishing their names.
In an Oct. 30 broadcast, Fox News veteran Brit Hume got it right in his criticism of the press, noting that reporters were under no obligation “legally or otherwise,” to withhold the name if it is newsworthy, which he said it was. A recent Reuters explainer buttresses Hume’s take. The whistleblower laws that apply to the intelligence community were written to protect informants who go through official channels from retaliation by the government, Reuters says. While exposure of the whistleblower’s identity by the president or other government officials could be interpreted as retaliation, the law does little to guarantee anonymity once the whistleblower’s complaint has been processed by the inspector general.