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Setting aside usually polarised US politics, the situation (at least for an outsider like me) looks quite bizarre.

The identity of the whistle blower has been common knowledge among anyone who bothered to care for quite some time:

  • Realclearinvestigation posted article pointing towards him on 30th of October
  • Politico run an article,
  • Apparently Fox News aired the name
  • Reportedly, the impeachment committee accidentally published the name in their proceedings, though it has been disputed whether that was, in fact, the real whistleblower.

However, despite their identity no longer being even a public secret, there appear to have been many efforts to stop the spread of this information:

  • When the link to Politico was enthusiastically retweeted by Trump jr it caused outrage, with many suggesting that by spreading their identity he may have committed a crime.

  • Tim Pool claimed in a videocast that he got suspended from Facebook for using that name.

What are logical reasons for such efforts to hide the identity of a person who is already well known? Are there any genuine reasons at this moment? Or is it just partisanship or an issue that some high ranking people in the media do not understand how information is spread on Internet, so they do something that could have worked maybe two decades ago?

[EDIT: I received here a quite many answers, explaining why outing whistleblowers is generally a wrong idea and should not be condoned. While reasonable and well thought, they nevertheless somewhat miss the second part of the question. As on non-mainstream websites the name already fights with Epstein for popularity among memes inspiration, I simply don't see how trying not to utter this name on more mainstream sources changes the situation]

  • 2
    As to whether it is a federal crime to out the whistleblower, depending on who outs them and whether they were being retaliated against MotherJones: Outing the Whistleblower Could Be Illegal. Expect Them to Get Away With It – smci Nov 12 at 18:20
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    As for your EDIT:, it is the same reason major news outlets don't publish pictures of revenge porn in reference to the crime being committed. First off, it's unethical to do so, second, they become an accessory to the original crime that was committed, and third, it allows the criminal to change the narrative from: 'This criminal published revenge porn' to 'Sure, this guy is bad, but look at her! Obviously she was asking for it/is a bad person/had a parking ticket and thus is also to blame.' – Carduus Nov 13 at 14:12
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    Re your EDIT, the name seems only known in a certain “non-mainstream” bubble — Politico is mainstream but you provide no links and Googling politico whistleblower identity can’t find that article. Potentially, that name is fake news, and is being confined to the fake news bubble. – Blaisorblade Nov 13 at 16:35
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    @Blaisorblade General hint: as according to famous leak Google promised to prevent another 'Trump Situation' in 2020, I'd suggest trying to find contentious information using less manipulated search engines, like for example "duckduckgo.com". Setting this aside, I managed to find the name of the whistleblower in their article, one may quarreller whether it actually points to that person as the whistleblower or not. – Shadow1024 Nov 13 at 20:01
  • People are still trying to out different people as the whistleblower, salon.com/2019/11/15/… – Joe W Nov 16 at 16:22
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Mistaken identity

It's not clear that the person named by RealClearInvestigations is the actual whistleblower. According to mediabiasfactcheck.com, that website has mixed factual reporting and has frequently run "emotionally loaded headlines" of which they give a few examples.

Given the uncertainty as to whether this is the actual whistleblower, it's not surprising that other news outlets are hesitant to pick it up. If it turns out this isn't the whistleblower then they will be called out to have spread fake news. The same can be said about social media, they will be careful not to be promoting or providing a platform for fake news, especially in such a high profile case.

If this person isn't the whistleblower and something does happen to him, then those who provided a platform may well be called out. Facebook is already under pressure from congress for not doing enough against fake news. It's not looking for more bad news when there's little to be gained.

Legal reasons

CNN has an article on whether it's illegal to out the whistle blower. They have two experts weigh in and the conclusion is that it's not illegal per se unless revealing their identity is retaliatory. To quote their experts:

Revealing the whistleblower's name does not clearly fall under one of these categories. However, Robert Litt, former general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence under Obama, argues it could be considered retaliatory if the individual disclosing the name is also a member of the intelligence community.

Noting that "there is liability for intelligence community employees who retaliate against an intelligence whistleblower," Litt said, "revealing the name could lead to the claim that you've created a hostile work environment and that's a form of retaliation."

Given the formal whistleblower protections enshrined in law, Michael German, a former FBI agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program, said Paul's statement is "not quite accurate."

"If the purpose of revealing this alleged whistleblower's name is retaliatory, then obviously it's prohibited by law," German said.

However, even if a whistleblower feels they could make the case they're facing retaliation, German told CNN "the protections are very weak."

"If a whistleblower makes a complaint about retaliation, that goes through an internal process," German said. However, because those viewing the case are part of the same organization as those accused of the retaliatory actions, German said, "it's hard for whistleblowers to get a fair hearing. It's a completely closed process."

The CNN article goes on to name the specific law (which is not specific to whistleblower protections) that German alludes to:

According to statute 18 USC § 1513(e), "whoever knowingly, with the intent to retaliate, takes any action harmful to any person, including interference with the lawful employment or livelihood of any person, for providing to a law enforcement officer any truthful information relating to the commission or possible commission of any Federal offense, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both."

  • 1
    With regard to point 1, Is it fair to say it's similar to how news media/outlets/etc. use "alleged" when describing someone who's been accused of a crime? There's just an accusation, no matter the apparent evidence, and until a judge/jury convicts that person, they're only the alleged to have done the crime. So the named person is the alleged whistleblower, until they themselves (or I suppose their attorney) confirm, and then that is corroborated. – BruceWayne Nov 12 at 19:02
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    @BruceWayne I think allegedly is used when there's a serious accusation, for example when someone is charged but has not been found guilty yet. I'm not sure how serious the current accusation is. If it is clear, then this of course a less compelling argument and Carduus provides a better argument in their points 3 and 4. I think there's little to be gained. It's a bit like trying to find out who reported a crime to the police rather than focusing on the police investigation and possible court proceeding that follows. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Nov 12 at 19:36
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    @JJforTransparencyandMonica "It's a bit like trying to find out who reported a crime" um, isn't it literally that? – JollyJoker Nov 13 at 8:25
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    @BruceWayne I think it should be "supposed whistleblower" or "purported whistleblower" rather than "alleged whistleblower." – Lag Nov 13 at 9:24
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    @Caleth I "Alleged" is normally used in the context of wrongdoing. We don't allege that someone anonymously rescued the kitten from the true. We allege that someone deliberately put the kitten in the tree to traumatise it. – Lag Nov 13 at 12:28
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The origins of the "identifying" of the whistle-blower come not from any actual fact or confirmation, but from speculation from a right-wing agenda site that bases the speculation upon similar characteristics matching between this person and the description of the whistle-blower.

The obvious problem with the identification is that it has not been factually confirmed by anyone, and circulating speculative gossip because others are doing it is not actual news reporting.

The most obvious analog to why a news entity would not choose to do so would be Richard Jewel, who was originally and accurately hailed as a hero when he discovered pipe bombs in a backpack in a public area during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and helped clear the area, reducing the amount of killed and wounded when the bomb detonated.

The FBI, still not knowing the identity of the bomber, looked closely at Jewell, himself, because he fit a possible profile of a lone bomber and someone who might look to insert himself into the situations to manufacture the "hero" situation. They talked out of school and because Jewell's life and appearance fit certain stereotypes, this out of school gossip was widely disseminated until there was a public narrative and assumption that it was based on fact.

Early news reports lauded Jewell as a hero for helping to evacuate the area after he spotted the suspicious package. Three days later, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that the FBI was treating him as a possible suspect, based largely on a "lone bomber" criminal profile. For the next several weeks, the news media focused aggressively on him as the presumed culprit, labeling him with the ambiguous term "person of interest", sifting through his life to match a leaked "lone bomber" profile that the FBI had used. The media, to varying degrees, portrayed Jewell as a failed law enforcement officer who may have planted the bomb so he could "find" it and be a hero.

A Justice Department investigation of the FBI's conduct found the FBI had tried to manipulate Jewell into waiving his constitutional rights by telling him he was taking part in a training film about bomb detection, although the report concluded "no intentional violation of Mr. Jewell's civil rights and no criminal misconduct" had taken place.

In a reference to the Unabomber, Jay Leno called him the "Una-doofus". Other references include "Una-Bubba", and (of his mother) "Una-Mama". Jewell was never officially charged, but the FBI thoroughly and publicly searched his home twice, questioned his associates, investigated his background, and maintained 24-hour surveillance of him. The pressure only began to ease after Jewell's attorneys hired an ex-FBI agent to administer a polygraph, which Jewell passed.

In October 1996, the investigating US Attorney, Kent Alexander, in an extremely unusual act, sent Jewell a letter formally clearing him, stating "based on the evidence developed to date ... Richard Jewell is not considered a target of the federal criminal investigation into the bombing on July 27, 1996, at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta".

Wikipedia: Richard Jewell

In addition to the cautionary tale learned through actual mistakes in the past, there is also the caution in the news media of not wanting to be willing dupes in attempts by parties with an interest in the investigation to distract from the central issues.

In reality, the whistle-blower's identity does not matter. Who the person is, and what their motivations are or were are not relevant. The facts of the complaint are what matters. An independent IG found the issues raised to be credible and urgent, which makes the whistle-blower's opinions or motivations to be irrelevant. The first line of phony defense was that the whistle-blower was reporting "second-hand" or "hearsay" information. That, of course, is also irrelevant, but the same people who claim it was very important are now claiming that it's important to hear from this "hearsay" witness after all of that person's claims have already been corroborated by either the Trump administration, or by first-hand participants. The whistle-blower has nothing to add beyond what was in their report, and if anyone has questions about it, those answers can be found in corroborating and, often, more direct testimony from others. There is literally no reason for that person to testify, other than for prurient gossip curiosity.

  • The person being named as the whistleblower was named in a transcript of testimony to Congress released by Rep. Adam Schiff. What remains speculative is whether Schiff released the name by accident, or intentionally left the name unredacted because the person named is not the whistleblower. – ReinstateMonicaSackTheStaff Nov 13 at 22:36
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    @NoU - we've seen this claim, repeatedly. The person was never named in the context of any confirmation that they were the whistleblower. It was only released because it was a meaningless name thrown out there in random fashion.Rep Jordan's (R) lead legal staffer asked a series of questions - do you know this person, have you ever heard of this person, to which the answer was "no".This is a Republican staffer trying to get the conspiracy theory tidbit on the record. There is NOTHING about that exchange that identifies the person as the whistle-blower, at all.The allegation is never even made. – PoloHoleSet Nov 13 at 23:25
  • It's not a "claim", it's a fact. And I pointed out myself that it's not clear whether the person named is the whistleblower. – ReinstateMonicaSackTheStaff Nov 13 at 23:25
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    @NoU - it's a claim that the whistleblower's name was accidentally "leaked" by Schiff. It's very clear from the context that there's nothing about the name drop that even remotely suggests or links to the whistle-blower report. If there's nothing about it to suggest that person is, I'm not sure why you bothered including it as a comment, other than to promulgate that claim. – PoloHoleSet Nov 13 at 23:27
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    @NoU - so how does a random name being intentionally inserted in testimony to promote a conspiracy theory, with no relevant context to the subject matter, relate to my answer, at all? – PoloHoleSet Nov 13 at 23:29
26

In the US, being a whistleblower is a status that is protected against retaliation by several federal laws. This is to encourage good behavior in government by acting as a check on illegal behavior. President Trump has already engaged in stochastic terrorism by stating that the whistleblower should be executed for treason as a spy.

So by refusing to publish the (alleged) name, a news organization is doing several things:

  1. Limiting their own liability in the possible commission of a Federal crime
  2. Limiting their own liability in case the name is incorrect
  3. Denying a platform to those who perpetuate these behaviors and thus put patriotic American lives at risk
  4. Focusing on the real story, that half a dozen people with firsthand knowledge have confirmed Trump's attempted bribery/extortion, so the whistleblower's identity is no longer required for the impeachment to proceed.
  • I don't think what Trump did qualifies as stochastic terrorism as per the definition in the article you linked. Or are you arguing that it was an attempt to demonize any possible whistleblowers as a group and incite random acts of violence against them? – Danila Smirnov Nov 13 at 5:21
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    @DanilaSmirnov The article says "person or a group". I would assume it's safe to believe the whistleblower is a person, unless they are a cat? – Tomáš Zato - Reinstate Monica Nov 13 at 9:51
  • @DanilaSmirnov I don't understand which part of the definition you're arguing against. Can you please clarify? Trump has been very clear that he'd like to know the first whistleblower's identity while at the same time making veiled references to violence against him or her. – Carduus Nov 13 at 14:03
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    However, it is not protected by the relevant law for the Intelligence Community. The name of that law is a bit of a misnomer. The press, in general, with how they do business, certainly has an interest in protecting the anonymity of people who provide information, even if it's not their own source, even if the law doesn't demand it. – PoloHoleSet Nov 13 at 23:32
16

Facebook has stated that:

"Any mention of the potential whistleblower’s name violates our coordinating harm policy, which prohibits content ‘outing of witness, informant, or activist.’ We are removing any and all mentions of the potential whistleblower’s name and will revisit this decision should their name be widely published in the media or used by public figures in debate."

Motives for censoring or not revealing the name can include:

  • Protecting the whistleblower,
  • Protecting the investigation,
  • Protecting people (e.g. David Edelman) from being falsely asserted to being the whistleblower (and the consequences that can follow), and
  • Preventing the discouragement of more people from whistleblowing in this case or future cases (i.e. whistleblowing generally).

Also, now that the whistleblower's complaint has been corroborated by the non-transcript and the testimonies of multiple other named individuals, their identity seems largely irrelevant to the investigation.

Some people want to attack the investigation by attacking the whistleblower's credibility, just as they've attempted character assassination against the named individuals who have given evidence. It seems to me that right now there are only negative reasons to know the whistleblower's name (including the commercialization of nosiness), not positive reasons.

7
  1. It's morally wrong, because it supports retaliation, and thus discourages future whistleblowers from speaking up.

  2. It's morally wrong, because it invites crimes against the whistleblower. Members of a major US party have already ambiguously asked for the whistleblower's head.

  3. It serves to distract from the story at hand. Major US newspapers have already been accused of playing a vital role in the 2016 election with unfair coverage. (The reader can compare coverage of the Hillary Clinton and Ivanka Trump email scandals as an exercise) If they now make the impeachment about the character of the person who notified authorities of the crime, instead of the person who committed the crime, it may further damage their reputation.

  4. The whistleblower's identity is not relevant. "The only thing that the whistleblower can say is that he was told by other people about the phone call. We have the other people coming forward to actually testify."

  5. They do not actually know the identity for certain.

None of these reasons is enough, on it's own, but combined they are at least sufficient that no credible major newspaper wants to be the first to reveal the name.

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    @Shadow1024 Fixed the wording. And I absolutely disagree on your second point. The whistleblower could be a convicted child molester on the run, and Trump would still be guilty of the crimes described by the transcript and the witnesses. The whistleblower isn't even used as a witness, so the one and only reason to reveal their name is to retailate in order to scare others from reporting crime. – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey Nov 13 at 9:05
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    @Shadow1024 "would you start an impeachment proceedings based on a hard line, politically active prior to whole incident Republican"? I absolutely hope that credible allegations would be looked into . And if an independent investigator then finds the complaint to be credible and urgent (which he did), I would expect the House to look into it (which they did). And if the House then finds evidence of a serious crime committed by the president (which they did), I would certainly hope that they start impeachment proceedings. – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey Nov 13 at 17:35
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    @Shadow1024 - If I make claims that can be independently corroborated by first-hand sources, and multiple ones at that,after being assessed as valid by an independent third party, using the correct and proper channels, then my reason for making the claims is not, at all, relevant. Innuendo and speculation on possible motivations, based on partisan leanings or opinions, even less so. Facts are facts. If I do so because I hate Trump with the heat of a thousand white-hot stars, and my claims are true, it doesn't matter that I raised the issue out of spite or hate. – PoloHoleSet Nov 13 at 23:36
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    @Shadow1024 - The report talks about actual events. The testimony have been about actual events. As much as you desperately wish it was about vague innuendo, the evidence has been very concrete. Why do you think Sonland changed his BS initial testimony? – PoloHoleSet Nov 14 at 16:40
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    @Shadow1024 - "this particular impeachment actually is 100% based on "Innuendo and speculation on possible motivations"" Even if that was true (it is not), the problem in such a scenario would be with the IG who falsely found concerns based on "Innuendo and speculation" urgent and credible, the people who forged the transcript, the people who released the forged transcript, the people who forged the incriminating text messages, the witnesses who gave false testimony, and the witnesses who could clear the president but instead refuse to comply with subpoenas. Not the whistleblower. – Peter - Unban Robert Harvey Nov 14 at 17:36
3

There are some journalistic standards that may come into play.

First, it's typical to have multiple independent sources before reporting a fact, especially if it's the reliability of the first source is at all questionable. Sometimes they will report that another reputable news outlet is reporting something, but that usually comes with disclaimers like, "we haven't been able to independently verify the claim." Putting the wrong name out there would be damaging to the outlet's credibility and potentially harmful to others (like the wrongly-named person).

The second consideration is whether identifying the whistleblower serves a public interest. If they are already a public figure, someone with power, or a pundit with a clear agenda, then maybe it is worth identifying them. If it's a junior staffer who doesn't set policy and who may face threats if identified, then you have to weigh the whistleblower's safety against that public interest, factoring in the certainty given that you haven't been able to independently identify them.

Standards vary by outlet and region. In the U.S., for example, minors involved in crimes are generally not identified in ordinary crime reports. In other countries, suspects' identities might be withheld--regardless of age--at least until there's a conviction.

Finally, in addition to protecting the whistleblower, you might also have to protect other sources. If only a few people know the identity of the whistleblower, and you get confirmation from one of those people (anonymously), identifying the whistleblower might put your source at risk (or at least sour them from feeding your more information in the future).

At this point, I think the major outlets have decided that there's little potential value in a scoop, there's risk of being wrong, there's risk of putting the whistleblower in harm's way (possibly involving some legal liability), and there's difficulty in finding a second independent source for confirmation (or there's risk of outing a source). If any outlet definitively knows the source, they may decide that it doesn't add enough to the story to identify them at this time. There's a lot less risk in waiting.

  • If the OP's three sources was where I got my news from, I'd have questions too.... "multiple independent sources" - that's how reporting works. "major [news] outlets" - none mentioned thus far; nothing to see here. – Mazura Nov 13 at 1:07
3

Possibly because the outing of the whistle blower seems to have been done with malice in mind (given the threats of being a traitor) and as a distraction attempt, and the media, already having more than enough story to report on, have decided not to spread the name further so that they can claim the high moral ground.

Additionally, if they report the name and it later turns out to be incorrect, then they will be accused of "fake news" by the very people who outed this supposed whistle blower in the first place.

1

There is another reason that hasn't been explicitly mentioned yet.

Media for their reporting depend on anonymous sources, including whistle blowers. It is a very fundamental moral and practical principle for media to keep this anonymous sources protected. People who leak to the media need to be able to stay safe. The journalists will not reveal the names of anonymous sources (including whistle blowers) because they are allies.

  • Can you elaborate a bit more on "they are allies"? – divibisan Nov 12 at 22:39
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    As a former journalist, I can tell you this would not generally be the case; you protect the anonymity of people who've provided information directly to you, not to anyone else. – jeffronicus Nov 12 at 23:44
  • @jeffronicus I would consider protecting their own informers but not the informers of their colleagues/competitors deeply problematic. – gerrit Nov 13 at 15:05
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    @divibisan They are allies because they need each other. Investigative journalists are out to uncover bad stuff that powers that be want to keep secret, whistle blowers need journalists (or platforms like wikileaks) to disseminate bad stuff they have found out, but can't announce publicly themselves. – gerrit Nov 13 at 15:07

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