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New York Times' decision to publish anonymous column carries risks

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By DAVID BAUDER

The coup of publishing a column by an anonymous Trump administration official bashing the boss could backfire on The New York Times if the author is unmasked and turns out to be a little-known person, or if the newspaper's own reporters solve the puzzle.

Within hours of the essay appearing on the paper's website, the mystery of the writer's identity began to rival the Watergate-era hunt for "Deep Throat" in Washington, and a parade of Trump team members issued statements Thursday saying, in effect, "it's not me."

The Times' only clue was calling the author a "senior administration official." James Dao, the newspaper's op-ed editor, said in the Times' daily podcast that while an intermediary brought him together with the author, he conducted a background check and spoke to the person to the point that he was "totally confident" in the identity.

How large the pool of "senior administration officials" is in Washington is a matter of interpretation.

It's a term used loosely around the White House. Press offices often release statements or offer background briefings and ask that the information be attributed to a senior administration official.

The Partnership for Public Services tracks approximately 700 senior positions in government, ones that require Senate confirmation. Paul Light, a New York University professor and expert on the federal bureaucracy, said about 50 people could have legitimately written the column — probably someone in a political position appointed by President Donald Trump.

He suspects the author is in either a Cabinet-level or deputy secretary position who frequently visits the White House or someone who works in the maze of offices in the West Wing. Most of the Cabinet has denied authorship.

Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, meanwhile, puts the number of true senior administration officials at around 100, defining them as high up in the government and having regular interaction with the White House or the president himself.

Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, tweeted that, based on her experience with the Times and sourcing, "this person could easily be someone most of us have never heard of and more junior than you'd expect."

That would be a problem for the Times, partly through no fault of its own, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The column attracted so much attention — as much for its existence as for what it actually said — that it raised the expectation that the author is someone powerful, she said.

If the person is not among the 20 top people in the administration, "the Times just gets creamed," said Tom Bettag, a veteran news producer and now a University of Maryland journalism instructor. "And I think it gets held against them in the biggest possible way. I have enough respect for the Times to believe that they wouldn't hold themselves up to that."

It would look like the Times was trying to stir the pot if it were not a high-level person, said Chuck Todd, host of NBC's "Meet the Press."

Ruth Marcus, deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post, told Todd on MSNBC that if the author had come to the Post it would provoke a serious discussion, because the newspaper has not in the past run anonymous op-ed columns. She said no one approached the Post to hawk the column.

"When you give someone anonymity on this, you are putting your credibility on the line," Marcus said.

News organizations have different standards for using information from unnamed sources. Frequently, they try to give some indication of why the person would be in a position to know something — the senior administration official, for example — and why anonymity was granted. In this case, the newspaper considered that the person's job would clearly be at risk and that the person could even be physically threatened, Dao said.

He did not see much difference in the use of anonymity in news and opinion pages.

The Times has long been a target of Trump's vitriol. He criticized the newspaper for printing the column and said the Times should reveal its source for reasons of national security.

"There's nothing in the piece that strikes me as being relevant to or undermining the national security," Dao said.

The newspaper maintains a strict policy of separation between its news and opinion side, and the decision to publish the column without identifying the author was made by Dao and his boss, Editorial Page Editor James Bennet, in consultation with Publisher A.G. Sulzberger. The paper's executive editor, Dean Baquet, is responsible for the news side and was not part of the decision.

Few people at the paper know the writer's identity, Dao said, and he could not see any circumstances under which it would be divulged.

The Times' own news story about the column said the author's identity is "known to the Times' editorial page department but not to the reporters who cover the White House."

Trump, in a tweet Thursday evening, posed the question: "Are the investigative 'journalists' of the New York Times going to investigate themselves - who is the anonymous letter writer?"

Indeed, like hundreds of other reporters in Washington, the Times' news staff is trying to find out the writer's name. If the Times learns the identity, it could raise serious questions about the newspaper's ability to protect a confidential source among people who don't know — or don't believe — that one part of the newspaper will keep important information away from another.

"You could write a novel about this," said Jamieson, author of the upcoming "Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President." ''If they engage in successful journalism, at some level they discredit themselves."

© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.


12 Comments
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The bubble is popping, every important official in the White House has already publicly disavowed being the source. The only person left is the janitor.

What an embarrassment for the NY Times.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

I really loathe the media's fixation with this story and how ready Trump mouthpieces are to exploit it. Like how people keep trying to pretend it must be a liberal doing the leaking, even though the story itself is an almost cliche articulation of conventional Republican talking points.

We already knew the Trump regime is a dysfunctional mess. We already knew he surrounds himself with self-important blow-hards eager to stab each other in the back for the slightest bit of prestige. The op-ed adds nothing to the national discourse, other than some vague republican propaganda that the GOP can still be trusted and empty comments about how we should "reach across the aisle", coming from a member of the ruling party that dominates all three branches of government and is particularly infamous for never reaching across the aisle.

The person who wrote this op-ed is a coward. They don't get points for claiming to subvert the Trump agenda in the dark if they aren't willing to stand against him to his face.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Anonymous sources, like Trump, have been a part of the media landscape for decades. When used ethically, they are an important part of democracy, being a check against the overreach of powerful entities.

However, it's not inconceivable to think that someone could make up, or over-represent, an anonymous source. I'm sure it's happened, though I have not bothered to do a fact check on this statement.

So it's never a bad idea to have a talk about anonymous sources, and what the expectations are for their use. This article is such a discussion - it brings up the risks of using anonymous sources. The media should be clearly aware of these risks when using such sources, to make sure that the usage of them is in an ethical and honest manner.

What is a mistake is anyone who thinks the conversation either discredits the use of anonymous sources, or indicates that they should never be used. Both of these are fundamentally incorrect conclusions to be made from simply having the conversation.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I think it was Trump. Oh ... that can't be, it was over 140 characters. Sorry. I'm wrong.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

IMO, the only risk to the NYT will be to its reputation, if the anonymously sourced article is found to be bogus. Given the immensely good reputation of the NYT, it is just about impossible, at this point, for me to believe that they would intentionally lie to the public. There are lots and lots of journalists who knowingly lie to the public, aka Fox News, but the NYT has a stellar reputation, and rightfully so.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

My anonymous source tells me that the anonymous source used by the NYT was a fake.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Burning BushToday  09:54 am JST

My anonymous source tells me that the anonymous source used by the NYT was a fake.

The difference being that the New York Times has 150 years of overwhelmingly ethical journalism, to the degree that they've won more Pulitzer Prizes than any other paper. While that might not mean we should automatically believe everything the NYT prints, it does mean that aside from fanatics ideologues in the Trump propaganda corps, people don't assume something in the NYT is false unless they have compelling evidence.

You on the other hand, don't.

Let me be clear, my problem isn't with the reporting of anonymized sources. My problem is with gutless Republicans trying to pretend they're confronting the Trump regime without actually taking meaningful steps to stop it, the sort of people who imply themselves to be part of "the resistance" while also turning up their nose at the real people who have the courage to stand up to the regime and face the consequences that entails. I have no problem with a news organization not revealing their sources, my contempt is exclusively for the coward who wrote this particular op-ed.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

The difference being that the New York Times has 150 years of overwhelmingly ethical journalism, 

They lost all claims to "ethical journalism" and credibility after the Iraqi WMD debacle.

They were exposed to be a biased war-mongering paper whose lies contributed to the death of thousands of absolutely innocent Iraqi women and children.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

The only person left is the janitor.

No. The butler.

The difference being that the New York Times has 150 years of overwhelmingly ethical journalism, ...

But, sometimes ... For a fun read see the story of The New York Times writer Jayson Blair who resigned from the paper in 2003:

”After internal investigations, The New York Times reported on Blair's journalistic misdeeds in an "unprecedented"[14] 7,239-word front-page story on May 11, 2003, headlined "Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception."[2] The story called the affair "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper."

The Times must have made a miraculous climb out of its admitted trough.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

My problem is with gutless Republicans trying to pretend they're confronting the Trump regime without actually taking meaningful steps to stop it, the sort of people who imply themselves to be part of "the resistance" while also turning up their nose at the real people who have the courage to stand up to the regime and face the consequences that entails. I have no problem with a news organization not revealing

their sources, my contempt is exclusively for the coward who wrote this particular op-ed.

Easy to be brave without your reputation, family, career, and possible all their govt retirement benefits at stake. If they move too quickly, nothing will be gained except total loss of everything (20-40 yrs) and Trump will remain in power.

Plus, since they are probably long-time Republicans, this will burn half their former contacts. They'd be forced to get help from, cough, Democrats.

Snowden got off easy, since he was early in his career and didn't have much more than a reputation and paycheck to loose.

Your moral code is so much higher than everyone elses', it must be terrible seeing almost the entire world not meet your standards. BTW, the same could have been said about the insiders for Clinton, Johnson, Nixon, GWBush and perhaps Obama. They did nothing.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Use your freedom of speech, freedom of speech.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

I don't think anyone in the Trump administration penned a letter saying they were betraying him. I think it is a manipulation to get Trump to implode on himself.

Duped by a USC student, someone ran the "essay" through http://turnitin.com . It showed as a 100% match to a USC student essay, turned in without citation - making it an original essay-sept 5-overachiever! Archived & submitted to the repository within minutes of New York Times.

The treason piece was submitted as part of a college essay by a USC student on September 5th. It did not originate within the white house.

The MSM figured it sounded good so they published it to sow discord within the Trump administration, and attempt to get Trump to self-destruct the white house.

So basically the New York Times dug up a college essay within minutes of it hitting the college archives and becoming searchable. Then published it with a fabricated back story to cause the Trump administration to implode on itself. That's quite a psych war tactic I must say!!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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