Obligations To Dead Sources

Former Apple board of directors member Jerry York, who died last March, was quite the talker. He divulged confidential information about Apple and Steve Jobs to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Fortune, according to those publications. It was all off record stuff, but now that he’s dead the deal’s apparently off. And York looks like a bit of a jerk.

“With York’s death, the off-the-record agreement is no longer in place,” says Fortune’s Doron Levin.

Even better – former New York Times correspondent Micheline Maynard actually outs her source in the process of saying she’d never out a source: “Jerry York told others of us details about Steve Jobs’ illness. To me, a promise is a promise.”

The more I read that Tweet the more my head spins. The hypocrisy is impressive. “I’d just like everyone to know that I’d never divulge that Jerry York, one of my sources, is a source.”

Anyway, back to ground level.

The precedent for all of this appears to be Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein insisted they would not reveal the identity of Deep Throat until he died or consented to have his identity revealed. There’s a good overview of that on this Quora thread.

It’s not clear with Watergate if that was something Mark Felt agreed to as Deep Throat. If he did, the precedent is invalid.

For me this comes down to right and wrong, not what a journalist can get away with, or justify.

A promise to a source to keep information confidential is giving your word. Unless the source is ok with you divulging that information after his or her death, and you explicitly know this, it’s not ok to out them. Certainly they aren’t around to complain about it or even deny that they were a source, so you’re in the clear. But giving your word to someone should be final. It’s not a situation where you look for an escape clause.

Journalists complain about process journalism, saying it’s unethical. It seems to me this is a much more clear cut example of ethics. And one where all the big guys are failing.