A for effort, F for execution: Grading the NYT op-ed

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If journalists were graded on impact alone, the anonymous author of the recent New York Times op-ed describing President Donald Trump as being guilty of “amorality” would earn an “A.” But this commentary presumably was not written by a journalist. On many levels, the author fails. 

According to Brian Stelter at CNN, the op-ed, written by an unnamed “senior” White House official who says Trump makes “reckless decisions” and engages in “erratic behavior,” has earned more than 12 million views. Reaction, speculation, denials, accusations and manhunts concerning the explosive 939-word commentary nearly eclipsed the confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court.

{mosads}Some are attacking the Times editors, including James Dao, for failing to reveal the author’s identity. Others chastise the author for refusing to own the information with his or her name and resigning. Others still are blaming every member of the administration for allowing such a chaotic environment in the White House. Many blame Trump himself.

My intention here is to deconstruct this incendiary device, for its effectiveness and adherence to standards on a rubric of my own making. Presumptuous, to be sure, but I have lots of practice doing just this.

As emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School, I instructed thousands of undergraduate and graduate students for 18 years, teaching courses on ethics, reporting and best practices in editing and writing, including narrative and op-eds.

As a senior leader with The OpEd Project for more than seven years, I have facilitated the mentorship of hundreds of experts globally, at universities, foundations and in public programs, on understanding their individual accountability to their expertise and the critical nature of engaging in public thought leadership with new ideas from under-represented sources. 

Professionally, I have been writing commentary and opinion for more than 40 years. So, in my audacious casting of judgment — assuming a score of 100 would be a perfect score — I will deduct points on this op-ed where I deem necessary.

The first rule broken here is the need to be transparent and identify sources. This fault lies on the backs of both the author and the editors. 

In the Society of Professional Journalists Code Of Ethics, journalists are admonished to “consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.” 

The motive in this instance was, reportedly, to save the country by exposing the practice of those inside the White House working to save democracy, who “believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.” 

Certainly this author as source would face retribution — if not harm — as evidenced by the two dozen top officials who went on the record immediately to deny authorship; Vice President Mike Pence was the first. But let the author explain himself or herself, or write under a byline. Subtract 10 points. 

A lack of transparency in disclosing if fact-checking occurred on each claim is unacceptable. While several claims were listed with hyperlinks to a document or fact — including a link to a story about Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) farewell letter, and a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin — others were not. 

Did the author provide the specifics of meetings where “early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment” occurred? Did other witnesses or documents, such as emails, voicemails or notes, prove this to be true? If so, prove it. Because there is no proof, deduct 10 points. 

The use of an unattributed direct quote — “There is literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next” — is an automatic deduction of 10 points.

A full, verbatim, attributed quote is the goal, as it contains the context and intent of the speaker; less desirable is a partial quote, as it takes speech out of context. An unattributed full quote lacks credibility, and the only thing worse out of all these options is a paraphrased, unattributed, anonymous quote. Somebody said something sometime. It reeks of falsehood.

How a piece is written matters. Any well-written piece of opinion journalism will not be salacious or intentionally shocking; word choice, pacing and coherence are crucial in demonstrating even-handedness. The goal is to be valued for newsworthiness, not outrageousness.

To achieve a cogent, articulate work, I suggest avoiding consistent one-sentence paragraphs. This produces a choppy, staccato pace. I also have an overwhelming aversion to clichés — I require a “clichectomy” in all content I edit. This was not done in the Times op-ed, evidenced by the abundance of old, tired phrases such as “unsung heroes,” “gone to great lengths,” “ties that bind,” “reaching across the aisle” and more. Find original language to make a point. Deduct 10 points. 

As an outside observer not privy to the specifics in this editorial process, I would give the author a 60 out of 100 for this piece. That would be an “F.” I would also demand a rewrite — and a byline.

Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, emerita faculty at Northwestern University and senior leader with The OpEd Project.

Tags Donald Trump John McCain Mike Pence New York Times

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