It’s easy to have an opinion.
Taking ownership of one’s opinion is much more difficult.
Letters to the editor, a staple of newspapers large and small because they long provided a forum for Americans with opinions and no other way to voice them, have become somewhat a thing of the past. Social media networks like Facebook, and the message boards that preceded them, have given an audience to anyone who has something to say. For those who have something on their mind and wish to reach a larger audience, letters to the editor are still an option. In essence, if you have something to say, it’s our job as this community’s newspaper to give you an opportunity to say it.
There’s just one requirement: You have to sign your name to it.
We don’t require that you have an opinion that matches our own, nor one that is even politically correct. We don’t require that you have a degree in English or that you’re of a certain political persuasion, gender, race, or any other demographic. We merely ask that you put your name behind what you have to say.
That might seem simple enough, but it’s not really that simple for many, who fear that their opinion might prove to be an unpopular one or, worse, might subject them to retaliation from those who disagree. Of the inquiries we get about writing a letter to the editor, probably 80 percent are from readers who wish to remain anonymous. Our answer is always the same: “We’re sorry, but that requirement isn’t negotiable.”
That brings me to the New York Times’ decision to publish an opinion piece that was anonymously written by someone inside the Trump administration. Some have praised the newspaper’s decision, others have criticized it. Within the newspaper industry, concern about the NYT’s decision has been widespread but somewhat muted, as publishers, editors and other journalists have been cautious to carefully word their response. At a time when journalism is increasingly under attack from all directions, most within the industry are reluctant to be viewed as piling on.
With that in mind, let me be clear about my reaction to the NYT’s decision: it is self-serving and careless, and inevitably will contribute to America’s growing lack of confidence in the news media in general.
Anonymity has its place in journalism. Sometimes, anonymous sources are key to telling stories that need to be told. Like many other newspapers, our own policy is that we will sometimes use nuggets of information from people who wish to remain anonymous if that info can be independently verified.
But the use of anonymity never, ever has a place on the opinion page.
There are many reasons why the NYT’s decision was a poor one. One goes back to the very reason why signatures are required on those old-fashioned letters to the editor: the writer of the NYT op-ed was extremely critical of the president, but the writer himself (herself?) is shielded from scrutiny. That’s incredibly unfair. Elected officials are never off-limits to criticism, not even the president. But if you’re going to scrutinize, you open yourself up to scrutiny. That’s unfair. Whether you’re criticizing the county mayor or the president, all who are reading your words deserve to know your identity so they can judge your motives. That’s only fair.
Another problem with the NYT’s decision is its own credibility. Transparency is key to the trust that any newspaper receives from its readers, and the NYT is showing none by allowing an anonymous writer to dominate its opinion page. Ultimately, the writer’s identity will be revealed, and what happens if it is not truly a high-ranking member of the Trump team? The words “senior member” are used loosely in presidential administrations and mean different things to different people. Some have said that there are around 50 people on the president’s team who could’ve authored the op-ed, others have said that number may be as high as 100. And the Partnership for Public Services tracks 700 federal government positions that are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate — any of whom could be called “senior positions.” But there are only about 20 members of the Trump team that are well-known to the general public and if anyone other than those two dozen or so people authored the NYT piece, the public’s trust in the NYT will ultimately be eroded.
The NYT’s decision was self-serving because the newspaper was willing to forego generations of well-serving journalistic practice and set a dangerous precedent for a purpose that benefits only the NYT. The allegations set forth by the anonymous op-ed piece were damning, but hardly revelatory. The writer alleged nothing that hadn’t already been alleged by Bob Woodward’s sources in his recently-released book, or by others.
Except for the massive page views generated by the NYT, it’s hard to see a concrete purpose that was served by the op-ed. Meanwhile, the fallout from the public’s skepticism towards the decision impacts newspapers large and small around the nation. As the globe’s most renowned newspaper, the NYT helps dictate public trust in journalism in general — however unfair that might be. So the NYT’s decision is unfortunate for all of us.
Meanwhile, the author has been hailed by some — not surprisingly, critique of the Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous has been largely divided along partisan lines — as a hero. But there’s nothing heroic about anonymity. Anyone could’ve signed the Declaration of Independence if the King’s nooses hadn’t awaited. Anyone could’ve been a Rosa Parks if the bus hadn’t been full of menacing white men. Anyone could march into battle if there were no bullets whizzing by.
Heroism generally requires sacrifice. The anonymous author of the NYT op-ed sacrificed nothing. Not even his or her job. Yes, it is easy to have an opinion. Anyone can have one if not required to put their name behind it.