Thursday, September 6, 2018


Did The New York Times go too far publishing an anonymous Op-Ed column from an apparent White House official who sought to reveal that many of his advisers are working to "thwart" parts of his agenda?

As the column, posted Wednesday night and published in today's paper, says in part:

The dilemma — which he does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.

I would know. I am one of them.

To be clear, ours is not the popular "resistance” of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.
But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.

That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.

Strong and likely necessary words given the state of the presidency. But is this the best use of the respected Times Op-Ed page, which is seen as true arbiter of judgment, opinion and balance? 

Offering a place for an insider to expose what is happening in the White House is an important part of journalism. But one that could have been done in a story, and is being done regularly in current news coverage, not to mention Bob Woodward's new explosive book: Fear: Trump in the White House, which is set to be published next week and is already sparking strong reaction given Woodward's reputation and skills as a quality reporter.

Woodward cites many unnamed sources who are revealing frightening examples of Trump's ineptness and chaotic approach. The Times could do the same in news stories quoting this same person. But lowering the coveted Op-Ed page to such levels seems beneath the paper's respectability.

The column also offers little information to readers on who the columnist is in terms of hierarchy or influence, stating that he or she is a "senior official in the Trump administration?" What does that mean? A cabinet person? A close adviser? A deputy assistant something or other? 

And that has sparked a guessing game in D.C. not seen since the days of Woodward's Deep Throat, the mystery parking garage source who help him and Carl Bernstein bring down another Republican president who misbehaved in office and faced impeachment calls. Deep Throat remained unknown for more than 40 years until former FBI official W. Mark Felt revealed it himself in 2006.

Will this guessing game take attention away from the actual issues being unearthed by the Op-Ed, Woodward and others? Perhaps not. But it adds another layer of chatter that diverts attention from true issues of the day such as national security, gun violence, climate change, education and other current demands for change.

CNN and Fox are among those already speculating who the author might be, with Fox reporting on odds makers already setting a betting line. (One of the favorites at 5-2 is Attorney General Jeff Sessions.)

With the Op-Ed column, the paper also posted and published the following editor's note:

The Times today is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers. We invite you to submit a question about the essay or our vetting process here.

The Times has had a long-running problem with anonymous sourcing, coming under fire when such sources are used for news and information that seems less than necessary. In early 2016, a revised policy was issued that said, in part:

At best, granting anonymity allows us to reveal the atrocities of terror groups, government abuses or other situations where sources may risk their lives, freedom or careers by talking to us. In sensitive areas like national security reporting, it can be unavoidable. But in other cases, readers question whether anonymity allows unnamed people to skew a story in favor of their own agenda. In rare cases, we have published information from anonymous sources without enough questions or skepticism — and it has turned out to be wrong.

The use of anonymous sources presents the greatest risk in our most consequential, exclusive stories. But the appearance of anonymous sources in routine government and political stories, as well as many other enterprise and feature stories, also tests our credibility with readers. They routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.

Revealing, as the anonymous Op-Ed writer did, that "meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back" seems like old news, albeit important news.

And, again, something that could be in a news story.

Back when the Times had a Public Editor, who could weigh in on such topics, the issue came up repeatedly. From the time the first public editor, Daniel Okrent, was hired in 2003 to the dismissal of the last one, Liz Spayd in 2017, the public editor column focused on anonymous sourcing more than 100 times.

The last such time was in February 2017 and had Spayd asking, "The risk of unnamed sources? Unconvinced readers." She stated in that column, "There is a wide and perilous gulf between the value journalists place on anonymous sources and the value readers do. Some may never accept information with roots they cannot see. But many others might, if more rigor was placed on convincing them. With a new administration in office and so much at stake, now is a good time to approach that task in earnest."

Former Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who spoke out many times on anonymous sourcing during her time in the job, weighed in on Twitter today about the Op-Ed. "It's a good day not to be the Public Editor of the New York Times," wrote Sullivan, now a media columnist for The Washington Post.

Such a move also gives Trump another excuse to attack the paper as he has done for years. I do not agree with his Tweet last night that it amounts to "treason" or that it was "gutless." And I certainly reject his claim that "the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!"

Trump's blabbering public response, posted by the Times HERE and below, also does not hold water as it has his usual false complaints and weak arguments that the newspaper is failing or lying.


But what the anonymous column does do is take a valuable tool like anonymous sourcing and abuse it to make a point that can be made off the Op-Ed page. And in a way that focuses attention on the news part of it and not the location.

Still, the erratic behavior of Trump, which continued again as he blasted the newspaper with a tirade of inaccuracies and unfounded calls for legal action, is a major issue. This Op-Ed may later be seen as the catalyst for what could be a serious opposition to Trump that ends with his removal, either by congressional action or the 2020 election.

The fact that one column in a newspaper is causing such a stir and strong response is a great sign that the Times and many other newspapers still have the influence they deserve. The Times is considered by many to be the best newspaper in the country. No argument here. And its Op-Ed page, which was the first ever when it initially appeared in 1970,  has long been a leader in public discourse and debate. This clearly shows that it remains an important and influential part of the news and opinion echo chamber.

Let's hope it stays that way.

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