‘Anonymous’ NYT byline quite rare, often given for reasons of safety

September 5, 2018
Category: Ethics & Trust

In 2009, The New York Times published an op-ed by an Iranian student swept up in the nation's dangerous pro-democracy protests. The newspaper decided not to reveal his full name for reasons of safety. 

In June, The Times published a first-person op-ed on the harrowing conditions an immigrant mother from El Salvador and her 6-year-old son suffered in family detention. Her name was not used, because she feared retribution from gangs and deportation.

On Wednesday, the newspaper's startling "anonymous" op-ed — which it verified as coming from a senior Trump White House official — caused a firestorm and backed up accounts in Bob Woodward's upcoming book, "Fear," about underlings going to extremes to protect America from an impulsive, unbalanced president. The op-ed talked about Trump's ineffective leadership and moves to prevent his "half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions." 

"Many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations," the author wrote. "I would know. I am one of them."

Poynter made attempts to contact members of the New York Times' editorial board but hadn't heard back at the time of publication.

James Dao, the paper’s op-ed editor, told a Times reporter that the material in the essay was vitally important to the public interest and merited the shielding of that author's name. “This was a very strongly, clearly written piece by someone who was staking out what we felt was a very principled position that deserved an airing,” said Dao, who has solicited questions from readers on the vetting process and the essay itself.

Editorial-page editor James Bennet told The Washington Post's Paul Farhi that The Times received the article before the news from Woodward's book broke Tuesday. Editors were told it could only be published anonymously. Was the piece important enough to make an exception? "We feel strongly that it was," Bennet told Farhi.

The theme, as in Woodward's book, was to put the country first. As with the Woodward book, the White House response was swift, characterizing the author as a coward and gutless, urging The Times to turn over the identify of the official at once. "TREASON?" tweeted Trump, who has faced a similar question for his curious alliance with American enemy Vladimir Putin. No, not treason, GOP Senator Lindsey Graham answered within minutes on CNN.

Usual administration critics, such as The Atlantic's David Frum, urged other White House protectors/enablers to come forward publicly, to resign, to speak with Congressional committees on the incapacity of the president. More anonymous assaults, Frum argues, will feed Trump's paranoia and increase his recklessness.

A GOP media analyst and Trump critic, Rick Wilson, told the leaker that she or he is going to get caught. "You need to go public, fast. Get into the daylight as quick as you can," Wilson tweeted. "Your only value now is in pulling down the entire system."