I’d guess that the most common kind of news article out of Washington would be an article reporting something breathless that was leaked to the reporter by an anonymous source. This is usually gussied up with frills and flounces, like “a source close to the Administration” or “a source with knowledge of the situation”.
I’m not one to say that all leaks should be eliminated, even if they could be eliminated. Which they can’t. Leaks can serve a good purpose — there are a lot of times a leak makes public some real issue. But we always should keep in mind the First Law of Leaks:
Every leak is being leaked to promote the agenda of the leaker, and is being shaped to the leaker’s advantage.
So once you see something that’s been leaked, you should ask yourself
five four questions:
- How is it being reported?
- Whose agenda does the leak serve?
- How surprising is it?
That last might be called the “Andrew Breitbart Answer.” Not too long before he died, Andrew made the point that often the right answer to the accusations of the left was “So?” or “So what?” Craig Biddle wrote excellently on Andrew’s question back in 2012. He has a lot more to say about it, but his central point is that “So?” directs the discussion to fundamental issues.
The recent leaks purported to be from John Bolton’s upcoming books — and, for that matter, Bolton’s book itself — have been just begging for someone to ask these questions, so let’s.
How is the leak being reported?
This is a pretty broad question and we might usefully break it down a bit. In the case of the Bolton book, looking at the various stories on leaks of the book’s contents, notice that everything reported is at least third hand: a reporter describing what an anonymous reader of the draft says the draft says.
As anyone who has played “telephone” in grade school remembers, the more you pass something like this through many brains, the farther it diverges from what was originally said.
Whose agenda does the leak serve?
It would seem the leaks serve at least three groups: Bolton himself, hoping to encourage sales of his book and get more people to read his viewpoints; the “Impeachment by Hook or by Crook” caucus; and the apparently large plurality of the national legacy media who see Trump as an enemy to their hegemony of opinion.
Well, maybe two groups: I’m not sure we can distinguish the “By-Hook-or-Crook” caucus from the legacy media.
How surprising is the leak?
I’ve written before about Fred Brooks’ explanation of Shannon’s information content — “the size of the surprise.” This is essential to understanding leaks. In this case, honestly, the surprise isn’t really that big: if it’s in Bolton’s book at all, all it says is that Trump was indeed interested in getting a corruption investigation started.
This is where we ask the Andrew Breitbart question. Assume this is all true: so what?
The whole theory of this impeachment has been that Trump was asking questions about multiple allegations of corruption and requiring the House By-Hook-or-Crook Committee to follow little legal niceties like actual subpoenas and review by the court. But it’s not allegations of corruption and seeking to investigate corruption that are bad; it’s seeking to investigate allegations of corruption by a candidate for the Democrats’ presidential nomination that is bad.
I expect we’ll find out eventually what Bolton’s book actually said, and given the history of these leaks I suspect we’ll discover the actual book is far less critical than the leaks imply.
But this is just an example — you can apply this rule to any leak. You’ll have a clearer understanding of any story based on any leak if you just remember that the leakers are supporting their own agendas.