The New York Times is considered – with good reason – the jewel of American journalism. It has been doing exemplary work in holding the Trump administration to account, and it has done so by maintaining its customary high standards. Until this week.
The publication of an anonymous op-ed by a senior administration official was a precedent-breaking moment for the paper, and the newspaper business generally. Even tabloids don’t normally do this. Editors fret over news stories based on anonymous sources. Going to the extent of granting anonymity to a top insider to pillory a president normally would be rejected out of hand.
The Times did the deed, and though it’s being viewed by some as a journalistic coup, it is hardly that. The paper erred on several fronts. For starters, it sets a bad precedent. Other papers will now feel at liberty to grant government officials licence to write attacks under the cloak of anonymity. The best in the business has done so, they will say. Why can’t we?
The Times played right into the hands of Mr. Trump and his supporters who rail against takedowns by unidentified sources and claim there is a deep state out to get them. What more evidence do they need than the all-powerful New York Times caving to the demands of a maligner to go nameless?
The Times, known for its small-font headlines, its sobriety and its integrity, overreacted and let standards fall. The anonymous piece contained mainly old news. That this is a chaotic White House run by an untethered, impetuous, ill-informed narcissist has been written countless times by named and unnamed sources and in books such as Fire and Fury.
While in most any administration there are advisers who try to thwart the boss’s worst instincts, dissent is exceptional in the case of Mr. Trump and the op-ed piece did provide further evidence of this. Of real interest was the point that there were early whispers by cabinet members of starting a complex process of trying to remove the President. But that is no longer the case, the source wrote.
But even if the Times thought it had big news here, why didn't the editors follow normal news-reporting procedure? Take what their source was telling them and put some reporters on the story to flesh it out and run it as a major news story. There was no compelling reason to break with journalistic tradition.
In fact, what happened was that one hand at the newspaper didn’t know what the other was doing. The opinion editors made the decision independent of the editorial side. Mr. Trump was predictably incensed, calling what the paper did “gutless.” His spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “This is a new low for the so-called paper of record.”
Some journalism professionals questioned the move. "It's extraordinary," said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. "I have never seen anything like this.”
Hopefully it won't be seen again. There are enough ways to go after Mr. Trump without pushing the envelope to the degree the Times did. The political tribalization of the country has been intensified enough already by the perception of media partisanship.
Anonymous sourcing took another hit this week with the publication of Bob Woodward’s book, Fear. Like The New York Times, Mr. Woodward is a highly credible titan of the trade. In his books, he typically grants anonymity to sources. He did so in this one, rolling out insults at Mr. Trump and others provided by unnamed officials. But the pushback has been strong.
In one instance, the book says Defense Secretary James Mattis told associates that the President had the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.” Mr. Mattis says it’s hogwash. “While I generally enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility.”
Mr. Woodward’s Watergate sidekick, Carl Bernstein, has been on the defensive over a recent source-based story he co-wrote suggesting Donald Trump had advance knowledge of a meeting of his campaign team with Russians in July of 2016. The story’s credibility has been challenged, leading Mr. Trump to call Mr. Bernstein a “degenerate fool.”
This President is vicious on the counterattack. Journalists covering him are being hit with his fatuous fake-news charge on a daily basis. Giving anonymous sources more latitude than is customary leaves him an opening he in no way merits.