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Expert Analysis: The Anonymous Resistance

"There is a quiet resistance within the administration of people choosing to put country first." These were the words of an anonymous author who wrote a scathing op-ed essay on President Donald Trump that was published Sept. 5 in The New York Times. The author bluntly added, "The root of the problem is the president's amorality." 


The op-ed painted a disturbing picture of a White House in chaos and a president whose instincts are "anti-democratic." The writer described how "many Trump appointees have vowed to do what [they] can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses until he is out of office." In an effort to reassure readers, the author added, "It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room." 


While the contents of the op-ed were deeply troubling, attention quickly shifted to who the author was and a debate over whether The Times should have granted the essayist anonymity. In an introduction to the essay, The Times noted it had decided to take the "rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay," adding, "We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers."


Journalists should always be reluctant to grant news sources anonymity; it should be a last resort. The public is entitled to as much information as possible about a source in order to make a better judgment about news content. Anonymous sources often have an agenda, or an ax to grind. For instance, they may want to undermine a decision they disagree with or may want to cast doubts about another person. Therefore, a journalist must always question the source's motives.


Most established news organizations require that a reporter check with their supervisor before granting anonymity. Reporters should keep in mind that inaccurate information can result in legal action and damaging credibility problems. Therefore, any information received from an anonymous source must be carefully vetted and researched. For this op-ed letter, The Times explained it determined its authenticity "through direct communication with the author, some background checking and the testimony of the trusted intermediary." The paper's op-ed editor and owner both approved publishing the essay, while the news department had no role in the decision.


The op-ed essay rocked the White House at its foundations. A series of written denials from more than a dozen senior administration officials quickly followed. President Trump called on the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the identity of the author. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray declined on Thursday to say whether he would begin an investigation. However, he did note, “I can tell you I didn’t write it. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”


The controversy over the use of anonymous sources intensified with the publication of legendary reporter Bob Woodward's new book, "Fear: Trump in the White House." The book depicts a White House in total chaos, and a senior staff managing an incompetent president. Woodward wrote in a note to his readers, "Interviews for this book were conducted under the journalist ground rule of 'deep background.' That means that all the information could be used but I would not say who provided it."


Of course, Trump responded to the book on Twitter: "The Woodward book is a scam. I don't talk the way I am quoted. If I did I would have not have been elected President. These quotes were made up." Woodward was part of The Washington Post’s investigative team that helped break the Watergate scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974. 


Woodward stands by his book and explained his use of anonymous sources on the podcast “The Daily.” "You won't get the straight story from someone if you do it on the record," Woodward said. "You will get a press release version of events." He added that without allowing anonymity, "we wouldn't have got the most important stories about what Watergate was about."


It is clear that had the author of The New York Times op-ed piece would have been ruthlessly attacked by President Trump and his supporters had they been named. After all, the president tweeted "TREASON" shortly after the anonymous essay was published.


Can the newspaper be forced to identify the author? The New York Times op-ed editor Jim Dao explained, “The First Amendment clearly protects the author’s right to publish an essay criticizing the president, and absolutely nothing in the Op-Ed involves criminal behavior. We intend to do everything in our power to protect the identity of the writer and have great confidence that the government cannot legally force us to reveal it.”


Thankfully, there are adults in the room at The New York Times!

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