Story

Indira Lakshmanan on CNN: Journalism Ethics and 'Fear: Trump in the White House'

Fear Woodward cover

Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward

Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward

On September 8th, 2018, CNN's Fredricka Whitfield spoke with the Pulitzer Center's Indira Lakshmana for CNN's Newsroom.  They discussed anonymous sourcing, journalism ethics, and public trust in journalism in anticipation of the release of Bob Woodward's book Fear: Trump in the White House.

The following is a transcript of the interview.

Aired September 8, 2018 - 12:00 ET

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Indira Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist for the Boston Globe and the executive editor of the Pulitzer Center. Good to see you.

So, you wrote and I'm quoting now, if even half of the stories describing Trump as unfit for office are true, it's the non-fiction horror story of the year, end quote. What do you mean?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, WASHINGTON COLUMNIST, THE BOSTON GLOBE: Well, as I went on to say in that column for the Boston Globe, what is even more terrifying is the idea of what if everything that Bob Woodward wrote is true? And I think we don't have much reason to doubt Bob Woodward.

I mean, look, he's written eight books about previous presidents. He has never been accused of fabrication. The way he works is meticulous. He takes hundreds of hours of taped interviews.

He does it on the basis of what we hear in Washington refer to as deep background, meaning you can use the material, you can even use in the case of how he works direct quotes just without saying who was the source, who told you that. But it had to have been someone who was in the room who overheard it.

One thing that I thought was striking after the excerpts, the early excerpts or reviews of Bob Woodward's book which by the way hasn't actually come out until next week came out was that both Ari Fleisher who worked for George W. Bush, and Paul Begala who worked for President Clinton, immediately came out said, hey, look we didn't like the books that he wrote about our president but we never questioned them as being false. So that's an important point despite being anonymous, he certainly knows who they are and, you know, has the tapes, one assumes from the way he works to prove it.

WHITFIELD: And then let's look at just how extraordinary all of this, you know, really is. You have what's described as a senior official within the administration talking about undermining the actions of a sitting president deemed to be a moral reckless, you know, just too impulsive. And then you've got that with this theme, recurring theme, from other published books, whether there is anonymity or whether there is really, you know, named sourcing. There's a really -- there's a common thread here. So, what's your view on how potentially damaging this is or is it really just adding to the chorus?

LAKSHMANAN: Well, I have a couple of thoughts here. First of all, Bob Woodward's book and his account, it echoes many of the themes that we saw in Michael Wolfe's "Fire and Fury" and Omarosa Manigault's "Unhinged". He is of course a much more credible narrator than either of them since, you know, we all know that along with his two Pulitzer prizes, his work with Carl Bernstein helped bring down eventually the Nixon presidency by exposing Watergate. So I think he has a lot more credibility coming into the gate.

On the question of anonymous sourcing though, I have to say, you know, I have worked on journalism ethics. I was at the Poynter Institute as the Newmark chair in journalism ethics until quite recently. And I think that in an ideal world, we would use fewer and fewer anonymous sources because it's important to build public trust in journalism, to restore to previous levels and even, you know, make the public trust our work and the way we do it, our processes, more, and anonymous sourcing doesn't help that.

WHITFIELD: Yes, but then help people understand why -- 

LAKSHMANAN: Right.

WHITFIELD: -- there are conditions and cases in which your sourcing has to remain anonymous.

LAKSHMANAN: That's right.

WHITFIELD: And it doesn't just mean somebody, you know, hands over some information to the New York Times or CNN or any other news, Boston Globe, and just says, I want to give you some information but please don't say who.

[12:40:06] I mean, there are layers -- 

LAKSHMANAN: That's right.

WHITFIELD: -- you know that take place -- 

LAKSHMANAN: Absolutely.

WHITFIELD: -- before any publication or outlet makes that agreement. So help underscore that.

LAKSHMANAN: You're absolutely right. And there is -- there's a whole vetting process. And when I speak publicly about this, you know, people who are not journalists but are very smart in other ways will often say to me, how can you use anonymous sources, you know, you don't even know who they are. And I have to stop and say, I know exactly who they are and I have vetted what they said. It's not just someone randomly calling me on the telephone and whispering something through a sock. That's not what anonymous sources are.

We have vetted them. We know who they are. We know where this information comes from. But because either their lives are in danger, their jobs are in danger, or they have some very legitimate reason for needing to protect their identity, that's when on a case-by-case basis we decide as journalists or op-ed page editors whether or not to print these things.

And by the way, the Boston Globe op-ed page editor who edits my columns is one of many op-ed editors who said if they carefully vetted it that like the Times, they would have also accepted and printed it anonymously, given the very unique and extenuating circumstances.

But I do think of course it would be better all things considered if someone who felt this way were able to come out and attaches his or her name to it. And it certainly not the way our democratic process is supposed to work. And that they shouldn't be working from within to undermine. This is what elections are for.

We the voters get to decide on things as opposed to people stealing things off a president's desk so that he doesn't sign them. That is incredibly troubling to hear those kinds of stories.

WHITFIELD: Indira Lakshmanan, we'll leave it there. Thank you so much, appreciate it.

LAKSHMANAN: Thank you.