The decision by The New York Times to publish an anonymous op-ed from a “senior official in the Trump administration” has drawn the accusation that it was a reckless departure from normal journalistic standards.
Dan Kennedy, a media critic and journalism professor at Northeastern, agreed that the piece is controversial, but not because the Times ran it. It’s controversial, he said, because the person who wrote it could’ve taken “a more principled stand” by revealing his or her identity.
The opinion piece, which was published online Wednesday afternoon, details a coordinated effort by many senior officials in President Donald J. Trump’s administration to work “diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
The Times defended the op-ed by explaining why it decided to publish the piece anonymously and invited readers to submit questions about the editorial board’s vetting process.
“We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers,” the Times wrote.
The Times’ op-ed editor, James Dao, also justified the decision by saying that the “material in the essay was important enough to the public interest to merit an exception,” to the paper’s policy of not granting anonymity to opinion writers.
“It landed like a thunderbolt. It was astonishing to read. I don’t recall anything written like it in the last 20 years or so.”
Breaking news, especially news on sensitive topics, with anonymous sources is not new. Each publication has its own guidelines on how to do it. Dao said The New York Times didn’t decide to publish the piece “until we read it and we were confident that they were who they said they were.”
Matt Carroll, a Northeastern journalism professor who won a Pulitzer Prize for helping to uncover a massive system of abuse within the Catholic church for The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, said that the essay is startling.
“It landed like a thunderbolt,” Carroll said. “It was astonishing to read. I don’t recall anything written like it in the last 20 years or so.”
What astonished both Carroll and Kennedy about the op-ed, though, wasn’t the fact that it was anonymous. It was the content. And the content—a senior White House staffer explaining a broad effort to thwart the president—could’ve had a bigger impact if it had a name attached to it, Kennedy said.
“This is not a failure of The New York Times, this is a failure in the White House,” Kennedy said. “The person who wrote this is trying to make him or herself look good rather than taking a principled stand by using his or her name and resigning. But as journalists, we don’t sit around judging the morals of our sources.”
Kennedy would’ve vetted and published the op-ed, he said. Carroll, too, would’ve run it.
Kennedy said, “I don’t see how you could possibly not run this. Good lord, anybody would’ve run this.”
Carroll, who has used anonymous sources “a couple times” throughout his career as a journalist, explained that while reporters would generally prefer to attribute information, there are certain valid reasons for keeping a source anonymous.
“It was an interesting decision,” he said. “As a journalist, the question you always have to answer is: Is this source adding enough to the story in order to justify the distraction caused by keeping him anonymous? In this case, you can see where the guy would lose his job if the Times didn’t keep his identity anonymous.”