To publish, or not to publish

Editor in Chief Caleb Owens discusses the New York Times' decision to run an anonymous op-ed.

Editor in Chief

Last week, the New York Times made the controversial decision to publish an anonymous op-ed, in which a senior Trump administration official depicted a tumultuous, and often treacherous, environment in the White House. The author wrote of our unhinged, unqualified and unpredictable president, describing covert efforts to manipulate him and obstruct reckless decisions.

The op-ed taught us little, providing general descriptions of already available information. It was in many ways infuriating. The insinuated heroism of the author and their colleagues came off as anything but heroic, admitting that they find the president impeachable but worth tolerating, currently the best vessel available for advancing their agenda. Every ten threats to international stability are worth one deregulatory policy, it seems.

Caleb HeadshotXander Opiyo/THE REVIEW
Editor in Chief Caleb Owens.

But, as the editor of a newspaper — somebody who makes quite a few calls about what to publish — I was intrigued by the Times’ decision to run the piece. At first, I respected the decision, and, caught up in the initial thrill, even the author. But then I wondered if I would have done the same.

Anonymity is no small thing. I’ve cited an anonymous source maybe once, and that was for a student at risk of deportation. Journalism is an institution founded on transparency, holding individuals accountable for their words and requiring that they own up to their positions. But an at-risk source is one thing ― running an anonymous opinion piece, a genre intended to represent the writer and nobody else, is another entirely.

For this reason alone, any editor’s default response should be a firm “no.” If you want to publish anonymously, take your opinions to Reddit. In an age where anybody — literally anybody ― can publish their words for a wide audience, the press assumes a role of new importance. Professional, reputable publications have a mandate to ensure that their material is handled responsibly, providing a safeguard against ever-growing skepticism of the press and information in general. This means being clear about where it’s coming from.

Of course, the “failing” New York Times knows all about this.

But perhaps when it involves the president, when national politics are at stake, the circumstances change, and anonymity should be granted.

Maybe. Of course, not everything that matters is fit to print. When making decisions about what to publish, it’s a matter of discriminating between what does, and what doesn’t, carry a certain threshold of informative value for the public. Potential public value can depend on context — something irrelevant one moment can be relevant the next. It can depend on who it’s coming from and who it’s about. And, most simply, it’s about what the information says.

This op-ed contained little information of public value. In most respects, it only became interesting because the Times decided to publish it, initiating the usual cascade of consequences — Donald’s infuriation, a new headline for the next day, another variable to toss into the ever-unfolding drama of the Trump presidency. And, to be clear, I’ve found the Times guilty of publishing information of minimal public value throughout this entire nightmare.

But the op-ed did teach us one thing — that the people closest to Trump, those “heroes” who are saving our union, deserve to go down as much as he does, and give us even more reason to distrust this administration. It taught us that this “silent resistance” ought to be resisted right alongside Trump. Their condition of anonymity tells us that the author is a coward disguising their complicity with ostensible bravery, contributing to the downfall of America and willing to advance a radical conservative agenda at all costs.

The public value of the piece, then, was not in the author’s claims but in what they reveal about the author. This veiled villain does not need a name — they are an ideology, a pathology, an intolerable threat to our democracy — and they are not singular. They are yet another reason to distrust the Trump administration and a party that has abandoned its principles — not to distrust the media — and deserve to be held accountable. The anonymity, while cloaking the true name of the author, illuminated their true character, the more important truth at hand.

For these reasons, the Times was right to run the piece. In an age of fake news and dwindling faith in journalistic integrity, an age when fierce backlash is inevitable, I hope I’d be willing to do the same.


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