After The New York Times published an opinion piece written by an unnamed “senior administration official” who claimed to be part of an anti-Trump coalition in the white house, debate surrounding the idea of unnamed or “anonymous” sources surged on social media. Journalists have talked and tweeted back and forth, arguing whether The Times did the right thing to print such an impactful piece without disclosing the source.
One important point to make in regard to the damning op-ed published on Sept. 5 is the fact that its author is not unknown to the opinion staff at the New York Times – they just have chosen to keep the author’s name confidential at his or her own request, as stated in an editor’s note printed above the op-ed.
One might ask what the paper might gain in printing such a piece, but the answer is simple. Think about how many people have read the op-ed, veered toward the NYT website for that sole purpose, or discussed the piece in a public setting. The attention the column has gotten is not unwarranted: the author claims to be one in a collaborative group dedicated to guiding the president away from disaster and out of the White House.
The unnamed writer refers to the president as “Mr. Trump,” in NYT fashion (this may have been an edit on their part, but I doubt it); decries Trump’s “amorality”; and argues that the “bright spots” of Trump’s presidency have happened “despite – not because of” the president. The piece is condescending, demeaning and derisive yet the author remains in a cloud of ambiguity, self-identified as one of multiple “senior officials” in the administration working together to “frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” as stated in the op-ed.
If true, the essay is blatant proof that Trump has enemies within his own White House administration. But why should we believe that’s true?
FiveThirtyEight writer Perry Bacon Jr. wrote a piece in July offering five tips for readers to determine whether an unnamed source can be trusted. Bacon suggests that information backed by multiple sources, named or unnamed, is likely more credible than information from a single source, and that the more information an article provides about the unnamed source, the better for credibility. He also urges readers to consider the reporters behind the information, their careers and expertise, and whether they have enough credibility that their sources can be trusted.
Still, the sum of Bacon’s advice is that readers should consume news carefully and with caution, as every publication is subject to human error. This is why many journalists have subtly gone to war over the subject.
While, I trust The Times enough to believe that the unnamed senior official is someone who would have enough first-hand knowledge of White House operations and relations to make the claims in the op-ed, I can’t know how trustworthy the author of the piece may be unless I know who it is.
That said, the person who wrote the piece has good reason to shield his or her identity. Ohio University professor and journalism ethics expert Nerissa Young pointed out in an interview Sept. 7 that an opinion piece is different from a news piece, so the use of an unnamed source has a different context than in other situations.
“It is a little bit different,” Young said. “It’s not a straight news story and, from what I understand about the Trump administration, about the only way anyone would come forward… is anonymously.”
Based on the president’s reaction, the person likely was right to stay hidden. In a one-word, all-capitalized Tweet Sept. 5, the day the op-ed was published, Trump voiced his thoughts on the piece: “TREASON?” That same day, he appeared at a press conference where he referred to the “anonymous editorial” as “gutless,” according to CNN. Later, Trump demanded, again via Twitter, that The Times turn over their source to the government.
Young directed me to other examples of when a government official has demanded that a publication reveal the identity of an unnamed source. A former Times reporter, Judy Miller, served 60 days in jail in 2005 for refusing to testify in court about one of her confidential sources. Vanessa Leggett, also from The Times, spent five months in jail for refusing to hand over notes to authorities during a criminal investigation, all in the name of protecting confidential sources.
It’s unlikely, however, that anyone will take legal action against The Times for publishing the anti-Trump editorial or refusing to reveal the identity of its author, Young said.
“Trump doesn’t have too many friends in the law-enforcement community right now,” Young said, adding that there’s no “clear and present danger” presented by the editorial, which would be needed to legally justify forcing The Times to out the person. “We are far from that point,” Young said. In other words, we may never know who wrote the op-ed unless the person comes forward, and, meanwhile, we’ll just have to speculate as to whether the author of the piece can be trusted.