Would Ohio editors publish an anonymous op-ed column?
By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director
The New York Times took the extraordinary step last week of publishing an anonymous op-ed column by a “senior official” in the Trump administration that described White House chaos and a group of officials who believe they must undermine the president’s worst tendencies for the good of the country.
One thing I’ve learned is that all leaders face moments when extraordinary circumstances require unusual decisions. That’s true in newsrooms, politics and every other walk of life.
Was this such a moment? A fascinating piece at Politico.com on the vision that led to the invention of the op-ed page by the New York Times contained this comment:
Critics argue that by not forcing the author to identify her, or himself, the Times has made that process more difficult. That may be true. But when the Constitution was being debated in the United States, the Federalist papers weren’t shelved because nobody knew who “Publius” was. Rather, readers judged the case on the words, not the identification or motivations of the authors. There’s a long history of anonymity and pseudonymity in American journalism, and it exists for good reasons.
Many other journalists disagree with The Times. I asked the editors of our largest Ohio operations and the former publisher in Hillsboro whose paper was one of the few in America that endorsed Trump. I got some interesting responses.
Rich Desrosiers, Canton Repository: “To use your words, Dennis, there was nothing in the Times piece I saw to affirm any idea that ‘extraordinary events demand extraordinary responses and decisions.’ Were we/are we on the brink of war? Recession? Significant indictments (meaning high-ranking officials, not lawyers and campaign officials)?
“Absent evidence to the contrary, which maybe NYT knows (but if so, they or the writer should say so), I see no current events extraordinary enough to allow an anonymous source the platform NYT gave this person.”
George Rodrigue, Cleveland Plain Dealer: “The honorable thing for the writer of the op-ed would have been to resign publicly and then write under their own name. But that was their choice. The only choice for the Times was whether to publish the op-ed or not. Under the circumstances, I think they made the right call. It’s true that this opened them up to accusations about use of anonymous material, but the truth is that nowadays any truthful report will be subject to allegations of something. We can’t allow fear of backlash to prevent us from informing the public to the best of our ability.”
Christopher Quinn, Cleveland.com: “I'm troubled by it. Without knowing everything the NYT knew, I can't say what I would have done, but I would have wanted to consider the motive of the writer. Is writing this thing a way to protect his reputation post-Trump, when he can step out of concealment and self-identify as the writer? Is this a way to stir more deep-state paranoia among the Trump base, to get out the vote in November? Publishing this feeds the notion, popular in some parts of this nation, that the media is irresponsible and out to get the president.
“I think the bar for publishing this has to be high, and what I've heard and read so far does not justify it. But, as I said, I don't know what I don't know.”
Bertram de Souza, The Vindicator, Youngstown: “As the Editorial Page Editor, I answer only to the owners of The Vindicator so as to maintain the wall of separation between Editorial and News. The separation issue looms large in the New York Times controversy. The Vindicator has had a long-standing policy of not granting anonymity to individuals submitting Op-Ed columns or letters to the editor. We believe that an individual expressing an opinion should be willing to be publicly identified.
“Only The Vindicator’s editorials are unsigned because they reflect the opinions of the owners, whose names appear in the masthead.”
Gary Abernathy, former publisher and editor of the Hillsboro Times-Gazette, recently left the position after many years in journalism when he was appointed a Highland County commissioner. Gary continues to write guest columns for The Washington Post with his views from “Trump Country.” When I asked Gary what he thought, here’s what he said:
Dennis, I was on BBC radio talking about this issue this morning. It’s an easy one for me. While anonymous sources are sometimes necessary for news, there should never be a place for anonymous opinion or commentary, especially in our most renowned newspapers. This op-ed has done nothing more than place everyone in the Trump administration under suspicion (unfairly to them), given credence to Trump’s claims of a ‘deep state,’ and made the New York Times seem a party to the ‘resistance.’ A bad day for journalism.”
As many of you know, I was a high-ranking editor for many years. I’ve had my fair share of tough publication decisions. What would I have done? At first, I was “all in” that the Times did the right thing, agreeing with Margaret Sullivan, the former Times ombudsman, that the column writer lacked courage, but the Times had a responsibility to publish this once it was authenticated and determined it was the only way it could be used.
A day or two later, I had changed my mind for many of the reasons noted above. Bob Woodward has criticized the column for its lack of specificity and documentation versus the accountability in his new book, “Fear,” in which he has hours of records and specific mentions of times, places and people in the room. As Woodward likes to note, his sources are anonymous but his facts are not.
Today, at least at this writing, I’m on the fence again. What would you have done? Feel free to share your comments and, more importantly, discuss in your newsroom.