The anonymous source is a tried and true necessary evil in the journalism world. Anonymous tipsters have been the catalyst behind some of the greatest stories in my life time (Watergate being the most infamous), and reporters have willingly sat in jail cells for weeks and months to protect their sources.
In the Internet age, the concept of the anonymous source has taken on a less glamorous image, because nowadays anyone can set up a blog or fire off e-mails from a fake address and accuse anyone of anything without ever providing a shred of evidence or providing a clue to his or her identity — and the Internet, being what it is, and people, being who they are, are wont to repeat the message as fact without ever checking the source’s or the information’s authenticity.
For that reason, I’ve grown to dislike and distrust anonymous sources. At best they’re spouting easily disprovable nonsense, at worst they’re people with personal agendas who are too cowardly to do their own dirty work and try to get the media to grind their axe on their behalf. Rarely are the sources, their causes, and their desire to remain anonymous valid.
This week, that rare species reared its head in the form of Friends of Falmouth Wind.
The Friends of Falmouth Wind is a group that supports responsible wind development in Falmouth, and the continued operation of the two town-owned turbines. The group recent launched an online petition drive, which the Enterprise learned about via a press release e-mailed from the greatest of friends to the anonymous pot-stirrer, a Gmail account.
Unwilling to take the group at face value (for reasons to be explained), we contacted the group asking for some names. We wanted to make sure this was a legitimate effort and not the work of a lone rabble-rouser looking to throw some stones from behind a curtain.
What we got was a list of seven names — some immediately recognizable, some not — which constituted the core of the organization, along with a request to keep those names confidential “due to legitimate concerns of harassment.”
Now, I’ve heard this reason before from people wishing to remain as anonymous sources: they fear that by speaking out publicly, they expose themselves to retribution. I’ve always viewed that as a cop-out excuse, perhaps biased by the fact that as a reporter, my name is attached to every single thing I write, which means if someone is going to give me hell for writing a less-than-flattering story about them, they know exactly who I am and where to find me.
Besides, lots of brave people speak out against real and perceived injustices every day and escape unscathed (though in fairness I will not speculate as to whether this is the rule or the exception.)
In this case, the fear is real; there have been documented incidents of harassment against people on both sides of the wind turbine debate, ranging from late-night crank phone calls to spamming e-mail accounts with angry diatribes. The emotion here, particularly on the side of the aggrieved residents who claim they’re suffering ill health effects because of the turbines’ noise output, is very raw and tends to promote somewhat uncivilized behavior.
When all factors were taken into account, the call was made to honor the request for anonymity, that call justified in no small way by the fact that we knew the players, and we knew where to get ahold of them if necessary. They were real people and this was a real group.
And then there is Voices on Wastewater, which in an angry e-mailed response to the Friends story, deemed “You, your editor, and your entire newspaper…a bunch of God damned HYPOCRITES!” (“You” meaning me, FYI.)
VOW, formerly the Coalition Against an Undemocratic Regional Wastewater Authority, was formed in February in response to a proposal by the Special Commission on County Governance to create a Cape-wide wastewater entity to implement and oversee a region-wide wastewater management plan. This entity — originally dubbed a “wastewater authority” and later a “wastewater district” — could have taxation powers, and a new bureaucracy that can levy a tax against homeowners is always cause for concern, no matter how noble the cause.
In its initial press release, VOW claimed to be “a Cape-wide group” comprised of 18 “members and interested parties…from the following Cape Cod towns: Wellfleet, Orleans, Dennis, Yarmouth, Barnstable, Sandwich, Falmouth, Bourne and Mashpee. It includes at least 2 environmental engineers, former Selectmen, current selectmen, retirees, housewives, business-persons, community/political activists, real estate professionals, and educators.”
No names were attached to the e-mail, and multiple requests for the identities of these 18 individuals received the following response (when a response was given at all): “The group is presently in its organizational phase. Other than that, we have no Comment about anything. Good day.”
(I later learned that my contemporaries over at the Barnstable Patriot received the exact same response when they tried to find out who was in the group, although they were also told that the anonymity was to avoid “political retribution by the powerful political clique that has formed in support of the recommendations issued by the Special Commission…the allegations [that VOW is a sham organization] are simply an ongoing political strategy by the county officials…in order to try and undermine any and all opposition to their plans”.)
The mystery deepened when, first, I started receiving tips that VOW was not a group, but a front for a single person with a well-established grudge against the wastewater authority/district concept.
Things got even stranger when VOW named names. In March the Coalition Against et cetera changed its name to VOW “after a series of internal votes by its supporters in every town across the Cape.” Three of the listed supporters were the Orleans Water Alliance, Brewster Selectman Jim Foley, and “community activist” Mike Foley of Orleans.
Funny thing: a representative from the Orleans Water Alliance said the OWA “is not affiliated in any way with Voices On Wastewater,” and Mr. Foley said in a brief phone conversation he was not part of the group.
VOW’s response when this was brought to their (his?) attention: “Other than what has already been stated, we have No Comment about anything. Good day.”
Until this week’s finger-wagging, VOW has been all but silent — although I have received a number of e-mails on wastewater-related matters from a series of Gmail accounts that have so far all proven false.
So in the end we have the concept of the anonymous source at its two extremes, one of which illustrates the value and need of anonymous sources that have faith in the integrity of the press, and one that makes the whole idea look shady and underhanded.
What the two groups share is that they’re embroiled in hot controversies that seem to bring out the worst in both sides, and for that reason alone it’s a shame that anyone feels they have to hide their faces. Whether for or against wind turbines or organized wastewater management, proponents and opponents alike should be able to opine freely, without fear that they will be attacked relentlessly and on a personal level.
Raise the tone of the conversations, people. Don’t give anyone a reason to fear speaking their minds.