Who Gets to Write an Anonymous Op-Ed?
What does a Trump administration official have in common with a woman fleeing gang violence in El Salvador and a student in Iran speaking out against Ahmadinejad? They share the rare distinction of having written anonymous op-eds for the New York Times.
On Wednesday, the Times published an anonymous op-ed by a senior official inside the Trump administration claiming to be part of “the resistance,” working to thwart Trump’s “worst inclinations” from within the White House. The author called the president’s leadership style “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective,” and claimed to be working, along with “likeminded colleagues,” to limit the damage done by this administration and protect the American people.
“It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room,” the author wrote. “We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”
In a note at the top of the piece, the paper explained that the author’s job would be at risk if their identity was known and, “We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”
Trump immediately lashed out, calling the piece “gutless,” and appearing to suggest on Twitter that it amounted to treason. The Internet has gone wild with speculation as to whom might have written the op-ed, with bookies reportedly taking bets about the author’s identity. The piece has already been widely satirized and debated.
Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Dallas’s Southern Methodist University, called the op-ed an unprecedented indictment of a U.S. president by a serving member of his own administration. That may be true — but there is precedence for anonymity on the opinion page.
On June 25th, 2018, the Times published an op-ed by an unnamed asylum seeker from El Salvador about the conditions she experienced in a family detention center in New Mexico in 2014, when she first arrived in the United States. She wrote that she came to this country with her six-year-old son and 16-year-old sister, after a gang threatened to kill her because she had witnessed a murder. All three were thrown into a detention center, where, she wrote, the food was often spoiled, medical attention was withheld, and overall, “It was no place for human beings, let alone for families with small children.” The op-ed came out following the Trump administration’s claims that they’d stopped separating families at the border, and would instead put them in detention centers together, like the one described in the piece. “This is not a solution,” the author wrote. “It just exchanges one form of trauma for another.”
At the top of the page was a note, “The author wrote on the condition of anonymity because of the gang-related threats she and her family face in the United States and in El Salvador.”
Nine years earlier, the Times published another anonymous op-ed, on June 18th, 2009, by a student in Iran identified only by a first name and last initial. The author wrote to dissuade American readers of their outdated views of Iran, which were being used to rationalize the rise of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as legitimate, and to avoid American intervention. “Those so-called experts warning Americans to be leery of claims of fraud by the opposition are basing their arguments on an outdated understanding of Iran that has little to do with the reality of what we here are experiencing during these singular days,” he wrote. “The pseudo-sociology peddled by so many in the West would easily dissolve with a week’s visit.”
The piece included the explanatory note, “This article was written by a student in Iran who, for reasons of safety, did not want to be identified by his full name.”
In 2016, the Times tightened restrictions on their use of anonymous sources in reported stories, issuing new rules to the newsroom in a note from editors Dean Baquet, Matt Purdy and Phil Corbett. “At best, granting anonymity allows us to reveal the atrocities of terror groups, government abuses or other situations where sources may risk their lives, freedom or careers by talking to us,” they wrote. “In sensitive areas like national security reporting, it can be unavoidable. But in other cases, readers question whether anonymity allows unnamed people to skew a story in favor of their own agenda.”
Anonymity, they continued, should be “a last resort, for situations in which The Times could not otherwise publish information it considers newsworthy and reliable,” and “Material from anonymous sources should be ‘information,’ not just spin or speculation. It should be ‘newsworthy,’ not just color or embellishment. And it should be information we consider ‘reliable.’”
The Times’ Opinion desk couldn’t be reached for comment or to confirm whether there were any other past instances in which they’d granted anonymity to an op-ed author. But based on these two past examples — the only ones we could find — letting an op-ed writer publish anonymously is not something the Times takes lightly. Considering the standard that the Times has held anonymous op-ed writers to in the past, does their decision to publish Wednesday’s piece mean that they consider — as many Americans do — Trump to be as dangerous as a gangster or a despot?