New York Times on Ginni Thomas: Let our anonymous sources label this religious nut for you

Anyone who has followed the work of religious conservatives in Washington, D.C., knows this name — Ginni Thomas.

She is, of course, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She is also a key figure in Republican Party politics, when it comes time to draw a bright red line between ordinary GOP power brokers (think corporate interests and country clubs) and people who are religious conservatives, first, and Republicans, second.

This is not a woman who, under normal circumstances, would hang out with the kinds of people who tend to spiral around Donald Trump, especially in the decades before he needed the approval of some old-guard Religious Right folks.

The key: To some Beltway people, Ginni Thomas represents a brand of conservatism worse than the brew Trump has been trying to sell.

What does this divide look like when it ends up in the New York Times? It certainly looks like the Times has its sources — unnamed, of course — among the cultural libertarians inside this White House. Readers are clubbed over the head during the overture of an alleged news story that ran with this headline: “Trump Meets With Hard-Right Group Led by Ginni Thomas.

WASHINGTON — President Trump met last week with a delegation of hard-right activists led by Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, listening quietly as members of the group denounced transgender people and women serving in the military, according to three people with direct knowledge of the events.

For 60 minutes Mr. Trump sat, saying little but appearing taken aback, the three people said, as the group also accused White House aides of blocking Trump supporters from getting jobs in the administration.

It is unusual for the spouse of a sitting Supreme Court justice to have such a meeting with a president, and some close to Mr. Trump said it was inappropriate for Ms. Thomas to have asked to meet with the head of a different branch of government.

A vocal conservative, Ms. Thomas has long been close to what had been the Republican Party’s fringes. …

It gets worse! Later, Times congregants received this terrifying news: Thomas prayed.

Ms. Thomas … joined others in prayer at the start of the meeting. Some members of the group prayed at different moments as the meeting continued.

So who is Ginni Thomas? She is a leader among conservatives who anger many inside top Trump circles. She is “hard-right,” a person on the “Republican Party’s fringes” who, later, is accused of “promoting conspiracy theories.”

There are, as we will see, anonymous sources who say all of this. There are, apparently, no sources — named or unnamed — who are familiar with Thomas and her beliefs, as she would state them. (Yes, readers learn that Thomas failed to respond to a Times email, the kind of chilly contact that functions as a snub in digital-era reporting.)

Let’s start with the one-sided blitz of labels. You see, there was a time when Times leaders were challenged to tone down that kind of acidic, simplistic rhetoric. Once again, let’s turn to the 2005 self-study conducted by the newspapers leaders after some ethical meltdowns that were, in large part, linked to constant use of anonymous sources. Consider these thoughts from “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust”:

Our training and orientation programs should include seminars for reporters and editors on avoiding tendentious language in news stories, features and analysis. …

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels.

So, the use of simplistic labels received quite a bit of attention in that self-study long ago.

A potentially dangerous newsroom addiction to anonymous sources received even more ink.

This is crucial, in discussions of “insider” scoops such as the Ginni Thomas feature. Everything in this long story flows out that initial attribution that states “according to three people with direct knowledge of the events.”

As always, anonymous sources create questions.

Were these anonymous people actually in the meeting? Were they outsiders who heard second-hand material? Did these three anonymous sources listen to recordings or read notes taken during the discussions? What are their motives in pushing this story? Are they members of the Trump staff who work to minimize the influence of cultural conservatives?

Here is what readers are told. The information in the story comes from “those familiar with the events,” “some close to Mr. Trump,” “people familiar with the situation,” “the people familiar with the events,” “a person briefed on the meeting” and “people familiar with the sit-down.” My favorite attribution terms used here? That would be “the people said” and “according to the people.”

Did this story contain any on-the-record sources on its central facts? Did I miss one?

Why is this important?

Let’s end with another quote from the Times self-study in 2005:

… The Times plainly finds it hard to curtail its dependence on anonymous sources. Much work remains to be done within our walls — and between reporters and their sources — before our handling of anonymous sources fulfills the ambitious goals outlined in the newsroom policy. Dan Okrent, the public editor, told the committee that when readers complain to him, anonymous sourcing is the No. 1 killer of our credibility. 

Does credibility matter these days or was the goal, in this story, to preach to the choir?

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