Opinion

Why The Writer of the New York Times Op-Ed Needs to Remain Nameless

After an anonymous White House employee penned a letter to The New York Times this September claiming to be involved in an internal movement to “thwart parts of [President Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations”, there’s been a horse race to unveil its author. 

The source writes largely about the importance of image preservation for the Republican party, as the President allegedly disregards values “long espoused by conservatives,” including “free minds, free markets and free people.” 

To combat a disregard for the political leverage conservatives have with one of their own in the White House, the author claims to work with other officials to limit Trump’s influence and distance his erratic behavior from the Republican image. 

Two massive obligations come to a head for journalists when a high-profile op-ed is published such as this one: the responsibility to uphold journalistic ethics, and the expectation to find and provide answers.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, anonymity is a protection reserved for sources who may face dangerous consequences for providing information that can’t be found anywhere else. To uphold journalistic ethics means to respect the decision for source protection and to know when there’s information that doesn’t and shouldn’t need to be known for the sake of the industry’s reputation and preservation.

Business Insider, CNN and multiple other outlets have hosted live conversations between pundits and written articles that go so far as to dissect particular words chosen by the author, such as ‘lodestar’, and associate it with senior officials who’ve used the word before. 

It’s not journalists’ responsibility to find and reveal the author. It isn’t The Times’ responsibility. It’s no one’s responsibility. Going this far to undermine a standard the press has worked to protect and defend for this long and this intensely is wrong.

Part of journalism’s purpose is transparency without destruction of lives and careers. It allows stories to be told.

The journalistic pillar of anonymity is a connection between the public and those in positions of power or influence who might affect citizens’ daily lives. Without it we wouldn’t know about the Watergate scandal. A variety of international coverage and insight wouldn’t be available if sources and their locations were public in toxic political or militaristic environments.

This search for The Times’ author prioritizes a selfish need to know information that isn’t actually valuable to you or I, but would undoubtedly ruin the source’s life and political career. The identity of the source, which has been verified by The Times, doesn’t give us anymore insight than this narrative already does.

This isn’t a political selfishness, it’s a universal selfishness — folks from all positions on the political spectrum have been interested in finding out who it is. It’s not good for one party, it’s not bad for the other. It’s wrong.

In a time where the press is under intense scrutiny and the work of journalists is consistently invalidated, it’s stories like these that reiterate the industry’s purpose: Transparency without disruption to the point of ruined lives and careers. Journalists don’t want lives to be ruined, in fact, they protect them. They want stories to be told. 

You can’t be pro-due process in journalism and try to figure out who penned the op-ed. There is a story here that gives insight into our country’s decision-making body, insight we wouldn’t have access to without anonymity or journalism. 

It’s the job of a journalist to protect their source if the stakes are high enough to warrant anonymity — I would argue, in this case, the stakes are incredibly high, and the protections for the anonymous White House staffer are justified.

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