In exceptional circumstances, do you use exceptional measures?
That’s a question journalists and the academy are pondering following last Wednesday’s opinion piece penned by a White House insider who says he or she is working to temper U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s more excessive policies.
The unsigned editorial is a cause cerebre for many reasons, but for the press, the idea that a critic can publish a critique without revealing his or her identity is as unusual as this presidency, which seems like a something from an Ayn Rand plot. According to the New York Times, the official claims that “many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”
For us practicing journalists, who teach and write and who once worked in the newsroom, the idea of publishing a critical narrative without identifying the writer is troubling.
But first some background.
In 1835, The Sun of New York made history by publishing a hoax saying life existed on the moon. Even earlier Benjamin Franklin faked a byline, Mrs. Silence Dogood, in 1722 so he could overrule his stepbrother and get his prose in print.
More recently, discredited journalist Jayson Blair, formerly of the New York Times, plagiarized a number of stories before he resigned in disgrace.
So what gives. Is an unsigned editorial on the order of inaccuracy or just outre?
We say that the press and the president are in a disruptive season. President Trump approved a telephone recording with Washington Post editor Bob Woodward on Woodward’s latest book exploring Trump called “Fear.”
In that conversation, you can hear Trump say over and over no one on this staff let him know that Woodward wanted to talk to him for the book and then later the president admits that a U.S. senator told him about it.
So, the question remains, should the New York Times have revealed the source because the president is amoral, as the guest writer who wasn’t identified claims?
Some argue that it is the credibility of the source and the potential consequences for that made the difference.
However, this scaffolding is flawed. Mainstream newsroom culture allows journalists to protect the source when an editor, someone who is a veteran journalist, makes that judicious decision.
Who knows how many leaders at the New York Times weighed in on the unconventional decision to publish the unsigned editorial. One? Two? Who knows?
It happened. It is history and now a new standard exists and that’s not good.
Everyone should be allowed to face his or her accuser. The 14th Amendment notes that all Americans are entitled to due process, which presumably means facing an accuser. President Trump calls the press the enemy but even this critical president has a right to know who is judging him publicly.
Michael Ray Smith, a former journalism professor at Campbell University, worked in newsrooms for Gannett and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution among others and continues to teach journalism at Lee University and in the graduate program at Regent University. His latest of eight books is “Fake News, Truth-Telling and Charles M. Sheldon’s Model for Accuracy.”