New York Times adds to media chaos in the Trump era

New York Times adds to media chaos in the Trump era
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The journalism profession has been challenged in many ways during the Trump administration, with the media industry itself often becoming part of the news. That trend continued this week when the New York Times decided to run an anonymous Trump bashing op-ed from a so-called “senior administration official.”

That choice runs against a journalistic standard that has served the profession well for decades. Media organizations traditionally expect people who want to publicly express their stances to take full and transparent ownership of their viewpoints. People who want to engage the public sphere, it is reasoned, should be brave enough to attach their names to their screeds, especially when criticizing other parties. Further, this practice protects a news outlet from possible accusations that such op-eds could have been fabricated by the news organization itself.

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The Times’ op-ed editor, James Dao, said in an interview that the decision to allow anonymity for the writer was based on the public interest, “This was a very strongly, clearly written piece by someone who was staking out what we felt was a very principled position that deserved an airing.” This all sounds quite noble, but well written and principled statements still need a name attached. Surely, the Times would not allow an anonymous White House official to pen a well-written op-ed in which the writer lauds Trump and tells the nation the administration is functioning effectively.

 

Identifying the writer in general terms as a “senior administration official” simply doesn’t allow the public enough context to fully assess the op-ed’s assertions. And, as many analysts have since noted, the field of people who could be labeled “senior official” in any administration is quite broad.

This latest episode of “exposing” the commotion that prevails in the White House appears to mostly just confirm what the nation already knows about Trump’s administration. His own daily tweets leave little doubt that he is mercurial and impulsive. Books by Michael Wolff and Omarosa, as well as Bob Woodward’s upcoming offering, all project the same general message about disarray in the White House, even as some particular details are questioned.

Thus, the Times’ surprising venture into greenlighting an anonymous op-ed is more about the Times itself, as opposed to honorably serving the civic needs of the nation. The decision has put the Times squarely in the news agendas of all leading and competing news outlets. It has reinforced the Times’ image as a leading Trump antagonist. It has generated countless clicks at the Times web site.

That a “senior administration official” wants to criticize the president for whom they work is, indeed, news — the key word here being “news.” That’s why the concerns raised by the anonymous writer should have been handled by the Times’ reporting staffers. Using anonymous sources can more easily (although not always) be justified in the coverage of actual news. News reporters often have occasion to accept unattributed input to stories. In the context of a complete news story, however, reporters can provide a greater sense of why that information was accepted and include the perspective of other sources. The reporters can also challenge any claims made by the source to whom they might grant anonymity. In short, actual news reporters do grant anonymity on occasions, but not without challenge, and certainly not as an open highway to vent.

The New York Times has long been the role model for many in the journalism industry. Don’t expect this latest decision about allowing an anonymous op-ed to be accepted by the rest of the news profession. That’s because the established practice of identifying opinion writers has proven to be sound, fair, and necessary. The editor of the Smalltown Journal surely knows that requiring op-ed writers to claim their own comments assures a credibility and accountability to a community’s public discourse.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.