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The anonymity dilemma: New York Times rivals react to explosive op-ed

While the White House reels from ...

Posted: Sep 6, 2018 10:11 PM
Updated: Sep 6, 2018 10:11 PM

While the White House reels from a highly critical op-ed written anonymously by a senior Trump administration official, the news media world continues to grapple with the New York Times' decision to publish it.

The piece, in which the unnamed official described an internal "resistance" being waged against President Trump, has become a test of newsroom policies governing anonymous sources.

Conversations with editors at some of the country's most prominent newspapers underscored the unique nature of the decision the Times faced, and the competing factors that any publication would navigate before deciding to publish.

The piece immediately became the top story in the country after it was published online by the Times Wednesday afternoon, dominating the news cycle and unleashing a fury of gossip.

Trump lashed out in characteristic fashion, and the Times even ran a story about the op-ed and the ensuing fallout on its front page on Thursday. And the piece has triggered a nationwide guessing game over the identity of the author, who wrote that there were whispers early in Trump's presidency about invoking the 25th amendment to remove him from office.

It is, in other words, the type of story pretty much any editor would dream of having fall into his lap -- which is essentially what happened to Times op-ed page editor Jim Dao, who was approached by the unnamed official through an intermediary several days ago. But that doesn't mean it was a no-brainer to publish.

Related: The story behind the New York Times' anonymous op-ed blasting Trump

Under its editorial guidelines, the Washington Post -- the Times' chief rival and perhaps one of the only other newspapers that could have landed the anonymous official's op-ed -- might well have passed.

The Post has a rule against "anonymous or pseudonymous submissions" to its opinion page.

"Our policy is as you say not to publish pieces anonymously," the Post's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt told CNN, adding that he has "no comment on the current situation."

Hiatt's direct colleague, deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus, gently invoked that policy during an appearance Wednesday night on MSNBC, all while being careful to judge her colleagues at the Times.

"I will say that it has not been our practice to do anonymous op-eds for the reason that kind of goes along the lines of...if you are making an argument, you should have the wherewithal and the belief in putting your name to that argument," Marcus said. " At the same time, I can't say whether we would have done it or not, so I don't want to sound churlish. Using anonymous sources is a very important tool in the toolbox for my colleagues in the newsroom, so not judging."

The Post is far from the only newspaper with such a policy; unnamed op-ed columns are extremely rare. But journalists at other papers suggested that the piece by the anonymous official was simply too remarkable to ignore.

Marjorie Pritchard, op-ed page editor at the Boston Globe, said her paper "would have handled the situation similarly to the Times."

"After proper and extensive vetting, we would have run the piece. It contained some news -- namely, that there has been talk inside the administration about invoking the 25th Amendment," Pritchard told CNN. "Though rare, anonymity is warranted in extraordinary circumstances."

Nancy Ancrum, the editorial board editor at the Miami Herald, said she only remembers one instance in which her paper ran an anonymous piece: about 15 years ago, the Herald published a letter from an unnamed woman who had been sexually assaulted as a child.

"And that went through quite a bit of discussion before we went ahead and published," Ancrum told CNN.

Ancrum, who has led the Herald's editorial page since 2013, said she has never fielded a request from someone to write anonymously -- and she genuinely isn't sure if the paper would have published the piece from the unnamed Trump administration official.

"I really cannot say. We would have tread extremely carefully. There would have been a lot of internal discussion. It would have to clearly depend upon who was writing this, and the amount of trust and confidence that we had in going ahead," Ancrum said. "Clearly it would not be my decision alone, and I cannot say definitively that we would have gone with it or we would not have gone with it."


"It would depend upon: who is the Deep Throat here?" she added. "Who is the intermediary? All of that would have to be factored in."

Anonymous opinion pieces are unusual at the Times, too, but the paper has gone there before -- most recently in June, when it published an op-ed by an unnamed Salvadorian asylum-seeker. Dao said the Times protected the official's identity at the author's request because divulging the name would jeopardize the person's job.

"Each decision has to be made on its own merits," Nicholas Goldberg, the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, told CNN. "But I think that given the extraordinary circumstances, the New York Times was ethically justified in publishing the piece — assuming, of course, that they know for certain who the author is and that he is a senior administration official, and that they have vetted the facts as well as they can."

Whatever reservations the Times had about publishing the op-ed, Dao said he and his colleagues ultimately decided that it "was a very strong piece written by someone who had something important to say and who's speaking from a place of their own sense of personal ethics and conscience."

Now the even bigger challenge falls to Dao's colleagues in the Times newsroom, which is separate from the opinion section.

"So basically," Times investigative reporter Jodi Kantor observed in a tweet on Wednesday, "Times reporters now must try to unearth the identity of an author that our colleagues in Opinion have sworn to protect with anonymity?"

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