❮ Return to Our Work

Hack WatchNewsletter | July 21, 2023

Can We Keep This Anonymous?

Hack WatchLaborMedia Accountability
Can We Keep This Anonymous?

I’m Threatening People With Homelessness But Don’t Want To Be Known For My Cruelty.

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our brand new Hack Watch website.

Irresponsible press coverage isn’t limited to Washington as Hollywood journalists take cues from Trump’s White House Press Corps by providing anonymity to sources where there should be none. While the entertainment media has been generally bad at covering the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and SAG-AFTRA strikes (including an instance where Deadline was forced to publicly apologize for misconstruing the words of actor Matt Damon,) giving a studio executive carte blanche to publish a one-sided management propaganda piece while remaining anonymous is a new low. 

For those who haven’t been following, the Writers Guild of America began a strike on May 2nd, in response to movie studio intransigence on issues of compensation, working conditions, and the future use of Artificial Intelligence in screenwriting. Eight days ago, the WGA was joined on the picket line by SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents actors and other Hollywood workers. SAG-AFTRA is striking for increased compensation, fair residuals from streaming, and to keep studios from using the digital likenesses of SAG members in film. 

Last week, Deadline’s Dominic Patten published a piece on the Hollywood studios’ plans to end the WGA strike. The plan, as Patten noted, was explicitly designed to kill union power in the movie industry for good. The article included anonymous quotes from studio executives describing their intentions of “break[ing] the WGA” and of “allow[ing] things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” A shockingly cruel statement designed to make striking workers lose resolve and come back to the negotiating table from a place of weakness. 

What’s especially troubling here is that these striking workers are now dealing with nameless anti-union executives using the Hollywood press as their spokesperson. As the past couple of years have made clear, unions are once again gaining steam across the country. As such,  Hollywood executives know that there’s significant reputational harm in seeking to crush a union and make its members homeless (particularly in a town where even Ronald Reagan was a union man,) so they turn to hacks at outlets like Deadline to publish their stomach-churning messages— using anonymity to protect their social life from any negative consequences. 

To be clear, there are certainly use cases for anonymity in the media. Anonymity is a crucial tool for reporters hoping to either write on sensitive topics or obtain information from sources that could face disciplinary action — like being fired or even jailed for sharing information with journalists. But this very limited set of circumstances is often abused, as journalists, competing over sources, grant anonymity in circumstances they ought not to. In these cases, the journalists become unwitting public relations teams for the source, who then gets to maintain a shroud of secrecy. 

The Associated Press recognizes this issue, as its Vice President for Standards, John Daniszewski wrote in 2017 “[…]there is a lesser variety of anonymity that has become all too common. Sometimes, paid spokespeople find it inconvenient to allow their names to be used even for official information[…] Wherever possible, AP journalists are urged to push back against such requests for anonymity, pressing for permission to use the name or bypassing the information if necessary.” The last part is key — if a spokesperson is only willing to provide non-sensitive information on the condition of anonymity, the journalist should simply let it go. It is much better to pass on a story than to step into the role of unpaid communications staffer. But in the case of Deadline’s piece on the studios’ strategy, the outlet was willing, even eager to publish a PR campaign if it meant getting a scoop. 

The abuse of anonymity was a major issue surrounding the Trump Administration — as many journalists used promises of anonymity to ensure consistent access to Trump White House officials. In one widely disparaged incident, the Washington Post relied on anonymous sources to distribute the Trump administration’s belief that “several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things.” Critiquing the Post’s article on Fauci, Jon Allsop wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that anonymity should not have been given in this case because “it wasn’t an unauthorized leak with an attendant fear of retribution, but rather an official statement of the White House’s position.” 

Allsop nails the issue with anonymous sourcing — if it’s the public position of an organization or if it’s their stated goal then it’s not in the public interest to grant anonymity. If, like the Fauci situation, no hard truths were uncovered or none of the parties involved faced any disciplinary actions, anonymity should not be granted just to shield individuals from potential social ramifications. 

Applying that standard to Patten’s piece, it’s immediately clear that the anonymous movie executive is not disseminating sensitive information from management’s camp. Instead, he is actively making a public threat to the WGA, likely as part of the management strategy to intimidate and sow fear in the striking writers. The studios want the strikers to begin to worry about their finances, and major publications quoting an executive threatening writers with homelessness is part of that strategy. Deadline’s publication of this threat from management to the union essentially positions the outlet as an anti-union PR team for the studios. 

While Patten may claim he was publishing actual news, his piece cannot be separated from the access journalism issues that plague Hollywood (and Washington) reporting. As journalists become increasingly reliant on insider gossip, they become beholden to their sources and thus more likely to grant them favors like anonymity. Writers like Patten, desperate for access to studio executives like the anonymous one in the article, are willing to bend their ethics in the pursuit of a story. As a result, the powerful and wealthy are able to conscript media outlets into disseminating their talking points under the guise of revelatory news coverage.

Without the ability to judge the individuals in question, or to address their comments directly, we should assume any anonymous quote originating from a studio executive is part of a coordinated campaign. If Deadline wants to be taken seriously as an outlet covering the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes it must reject baseless requests for anonymity and other favors for its favorite sources. The outlet cannot be providing favors to one side while pretending to be a neutral reporter of the strike — that just doesn’t work. 

Hack WatchLaborMedia Accountability

Related Articles

More articles by Henry Burke

❮ Return to Our Work