The Media Today

Why did The New York Times grant anonymity to the op-ed writer?

September 6, 2018

Who wrote the op-ed? Why did the opinion side of The New York Times get it, and did they consider handing it over to the reporting side? Why did the paper decide to grant anonymity?

These are just a few of the questions dominating  political and media conversations this morning, after The New York Times yesterday made the highly unusual decision to grant anonymity to a “senior official” in the Trump administration who wrote a piece claiming to be part of the “resistance” to the president’s “worst inclinations.”

The piece’s publication, of course, set off a scramble to identify its author, with theories popping up on social media and bookmakers offering odds on who it might be. The Times’s opinion section operates independently from its newsroom, so reporters at the paper were left trying to expose the identity of a figure known to some of their colleagues on the other side of the editorial firewall. “People are totally stunned,” one senior Times journalist told Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo. “It’s a parlor game. Everybody’s trying to figure out who it is.”

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By now, you’ve probably read it. Trump certainly has. Just after 5pm, Trump addressed the press after meeting a group of sheriffs in the White House. He spoke angrily about the editorial and attacked the “failing” New York Times while offering a ranting defense of his record while in office. On Twitter, he questioned whether the author existed, and added: “If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders issued a statement calling on the “coward” who wrote the piece to “do the right thing and resign.”

The op-ed comes, perhaps not coincidentally, as Trump officials are dealing with explosive reporting in Bob Woodward’s book Fear: Trump in the White House. According to reports, the book contains quotes from senior administration officials trashing the president, and working to keep Trump’s actions under control. “Taken together, they landed like a thunder clap,” write The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, and Josh Dawsey, “portraying Trump as a danger to the country that elected him and feeding the president’s paranoia about whom around him he can trust.”

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The decision by the Times to allow the author of an op-ed piece to maintain anonymity was unusual, but not unprecedented. The paper had done so in the past when a writer’s life may have been endangered by what they wrote, a spokesperson said, citing a Salvadorian immigrant’s story from earlier this summer and this 2014 piece by a Pakistani woman living under Taliban rule. But it appears the paper has never withheld the name of an American official writing about his or her own work within the government. Op-ed editor James Dao told the Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum that the exception was made in this case because the author presented “a very strongly, clearly written piece by someone who was staking out what we felt was a very principled position that deserved an airing.”

Trump and some of his media allies criticized the Times for its decision to allow the author to maintain anonymity, but while the measure is certainly unusual, it makes more sense if you think about it as a choice was between publishing anonymously and not publishing at all. And the op-ed section has never shied away from making a splash. Politico’s Jack Shafer, quoting a 19th-century journalistic credo, writes that “The New York Times did the right thing in publishing Anonymous because the ‘first duty of the to obtain the correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation.’”

The publication of the anonymous op-ed certainly piles on another layer of chaos to the already tumultuous workings of Trump’s White House, but there have been many “days that changed the Trump presidency” over the past year and a half. Speaking on Fox News on Wednesday evening, Brit Hume tried to put the uproar in context. “Every week, it seems, there’s some new explosive development that’s going to mean the beginning of the end,” he said. “And yet the administration moves on; the news cycle is faster and more intense than ever. I suspect this will all blow over.”

Below, more on the fallout from the opinion piece and the guessing game it has inspired.

  • How it happened: Dao spoke with the Times’s Michael Barbaro on Thursday’s episode of The Daily. Dao says that the author contacted the Times through an intermediary, and that the opinion editors agreed that the official’s words deserved to be read.
  • The Times’s response: Shortly after the publication of the op-ed, former NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan tweeted, “It’s a good day not to be the Public Editor of the New York Times.” The task of answering questions about the paper’s decision will fall to Dao, and the Times has set up a page in its Reader Center where people can submit questions about the vetting process.
  • On the author: Anti-Trump conservative David Frum also criticized the op-ed’s author for hiding behind the cloak of anonymity, accusing the official of trying to vindicate his or her reputation. “What the author has just done is throw the government of the United States into even more dangerous turmoil,” Frum writes. “He or she has enflamed the paranoia of the president and empowered the president’s willfulness.”
  • So, who wrote it?: “An amazing thing about this op-ed is not that someone wrote it, but how many people in the administration plausibly could have written it,” the AP’s Zeke Miller tweeted. The official’s identity seems like it can’t stay secret for long, but on Wednesday evening, guesses pointed in infinite directions, and there are, according to some reports, over 1,000 people who might fit the description. “Internet conspiracy theorists cracked their knuckles and settled in for a long night’s work. Pundits sat by their phones and in front of TV cameras, waiting for their chances to weigh in. Ravenous masses took to Twitter and Reddit to tear into the piece’s bread crumbs,” writes The Washington Post’s Taylor Telford. “The game was afoot.


Other notable stories:

  • In a provocative profile for CJR, Lyz Lenz explores the mystery of Tucker Carlson. It’s a story about a promising magazine writer’s decline into nightly cable shouter, but Carlson’s career arc also tells us something about how we ended up at this point in American politics.
  • On a normal day, the appearance of two top tech executives (and the absence of anyone from Google) before the Senate intelligence committee would have been a major story. CJR’s Mathew Ingram says that Wednesday’s hearing, featuring Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey “was a mostly sedate affair” with “little discussion of why it took almost a decade for both of these massive and well-funded platforms to spend even a fraction of their resources on figuring out how bad actors such as Russian counter-intelligence agencies or Iranian political factions might use them for their own ends.”
  • The New York Times’s Dwight Garner has a lukewarm review of Bob Woodward’s new book, writing that if Fear “has a single point to drive home, it is that the president of the United States is a congenital liar. I wish Fear had other points to make. I wanted more context, more passion, a bit of irony and certainly more simple history. Surely Woodward, of all people, has worthwhile comparisons to make between Trump and Richard Nixon.”
  • The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan offers her take on the New Yorker–Steve Bannon controversy: “Utterly pointless is the notion that Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, might have something new or valuable to offer.”
  • The LA Times’s Meg James reports that the CBS board and controlling shareholder Shari Redstone have engaged in discussions that would “pave the way for the departure of longtime Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.
  • Reuters Global Affairs Columnist Peter Apps, who was paralyzed from the shoulders down 12 years ago while reporting in Sri Lanka, reflects on his life and career after the accident that changed his life. “More has proved possible than I initially feared—whether that has been writing with voice-recognition software, dating, relationships, travel,” Apps writes.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.