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October 29, 2020

Remember that New York Times op-ed in 2018 titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration”? The one written by an anonymous source inside the Trump White House? The one that the Times referred to as from a “senior official inside the Trump administration?” The one that called into question President Donald Trump’s ability to lead the nation? The one that called Trump “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective?” The one that infuriated the president and his closest supporters?

Turns out, anonymous is (checks notes) Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security.

Taylor confirmed the news to The New York Times’ Michael D. Shear and revealed it in a lengthy statement Wednesday. He wrote, “Much has been made of the fact that these writings were published anonymously. The decision wasn’t easy, I wrestled with it, and I understand why some people consider it questionable to levy such serious charges against a sitting President under the cover of anonymity. But my reasoning was straightforward, and I stand by it.”

And that reason?

“Issuing my critiques without attribution forced the President to answer them directly on their merits or not at all, rather than creating distractions through petty insults and name-calling,” Taylor wrote. “I wanted the attention to be on the arguments themselves.”

Immediately after Taylor revealed he wrote the op-ed the debate began over just how “senior” Taylor was and how much knowledge he had of the inner workings of the White House. Many Trump supporters, of course, dismissed him as a low-level official. Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz, who certainly leans right in his commentary, tweeted, “Should the NYT have granted anonymity as a ‘senior administration official’ to minor DHS bureaucrat Miles Taylor? I’d say no in retrospect. Granted him a stature to attack the president that was totally unwarranted.”

And, no surprise, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was highly critical of Taylor, as well as calling him a “low-level, disgruntled former staffer.”

But there were others who had questions, too. Brookings Institution senior fellow Susan Hennessey, who has appeared on CNN as a national security and legal analyst, tweeted, “Leaving aside how one feels about Taylor’s actions, I’m not sure that the NY Times decision to grant a DHS chief of staff anonymity for that op-ed and to describe him as a ‘senior administration official’ holds up especially well.”

Axios’ Jonathan Swan retweeted Hennessey and added, “It’s an embarrassment.”

Hennessey added, “The mere fact that the majority of people clearly came away with the perception that the author was dramatically more senior than he was in reality means that the Times failed to provide its readership sufficient context.”

In their story for The Washington Post, Colby Itkowitz and Josh Dawsey wrote, “A chief of staff and many senior deputies to Cabinet members are often political appointees and considered senior administration officials.”

What else do we know about Taylor? As Axios’ Orion Rummler points out, Taylor endorsed Joe Biden two months ago in a video funded by Republican Voters Against Trump. He was the chief of staff to an agency that oversaw the Trump administration’s controversial family separation policy.

He denied in August on CNN that he was the anonymous writer of the op-ed. And, speaking of CNN, he is now a contributor to the network after leaving the White House in April 2019 — about seven months after he wrote the op-ed.

Does this move the needle at all less than a week before the election? Not really. Trump supporters will continue to dismiss Taylor, while Biden supporters really don’t need anything having to do with Taylor’s two-year-old op-ed to build a case against reelecting Trump.

The biggest questions that remain are The New York Times’ description of Taylor and its decision to give Taylor the anonymity and space to write the op-ed that he did.

Tech(nically) speaking

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appears on a screen as he speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)

Twitter, Facebook and Google were on the receiving end of some serious grilling during a congressional hearing Wednesday. Senate lawmakers are looking into Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows tech platforms to moderate content and not be legally liable for what is posted on their sites.

The three tech giants are getting it from both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats want them to be aggressive in monitoring content, while Republicans think the companies should be less aggressive and stay away from what Republicans see as censorship.

The most heated exchange came between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who did plenty of yelling, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who was much more reserved in his responses. Cruz is upset that Twitter had initially blocked links to a story in the New York Post about Hunter Biden, which hasn’t been verified by most reputable news outlets.

Cruz said, “Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear? … Why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super PAC, silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs?”

Dorsey said, “We’re not doing that.”

Notable was that Dorsey seemed to be the target for Republicans, while Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was the focus of Democrats. All three companies denied again having any political leanings.

For more, here are stories by The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as an informative Twitter thread from CNN tech reporter Brian Fung.

Controversial endorsement sparks changes

After a controversial endorsement of President Trump by its publisher, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, will no longer publish endorsements and unsigned editorials.

Over the weekend, Spokesman-Review publisher Stacey Cowles called Trump a “wretched human being” among other criticisms and yet still recommended Trump to remain president.

The backlash from readers and even staffers at The Spokesman-Review was swift and strong. Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley, who had nothing to do with the endorsement, wrote in a rather lengthy piece that he received a few hundred emails about the endorsement and that some made it personal, calling him a horrible human being.

He wrote, “With those words simply attributed to The Spokesman-Review, it became clear things should be different from here on out. There are some newspaper traditions we shouldn’t just be OK dumping, we should openly embrace throwing them out as outdated relics.”

In announcing key changes to the opinion page, The Spokesman-Review wrote, “No more unsigned editorials and no more endorsements. If there are times we feel our newspaper should have a traditional editorial, it will be signed by both the publisher and the editor.”

In addition, The Spokesman-Review said it will concentrate more on timely columns, that local news columnists will run often on the opinion pages and that there will be an emphasis on local letters to the editor.

While Curley’s piece explained why he believes the tradition of unsigned editorials should go away, one can’t help but wonder if these changes were actually the result of the publisher simply making an unpopular endorsement.

In case you missed it, I wrote about why newspapers still make political endorsements in my Wednesday Poynter Report. I talked to three notable editorial page editors — Scott Gillespie of The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Bina Venkataraman of The Boston Globe, and Mike Lafferty of the Orlando Sentinel — and all offered compelling reasons why endorsements and recommendations are still important.

Another endorsement controversy

The Spokesman-Review wasn’t the only paper to court controversy after endorsing Trump for president. There also was backlash at the Boston Herald for its recommendation of Trump.

Herald sportswriter Jason Mastrodonato posted a Twitter thread about it, calling it a “tough day at the Boston Herald.” He added, “It’s really important to note the Boston Herald staff, as a unit, is not endorsing Trump. The ‘editorial group’ did. This was a decision made by a handful of people. I don’t want to speak for others, but it was a decision that was protested and does not speak for me.”

Another Herald sportswriter, Andrew Callahan, tweeted, “Reminder: A newspaper’s ‘editorial’ group operates independently from the reporters in its newsroom. It does not represent all staff members. Today, the Herald’s small editorial group sure as hell doesn’t speak for me.”

The end of City Pages

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

Another alternative weekly, City Pages in Minneapolis/St. Paul, has folded.  The paper and its site were bought by the regional metro, The Star Tribune, from Voice Publications in 2015.

The arrangement was unusual, given that a staple of alt-weekly content has typically been highly critical reporting on the daily in town, but not unprecedented.

Alt-weeklies have faced their own severe version of print advertising woes in recent years — typically without much or any income from subscriptions since the business model relied on free distribution. A bad situation deteriorated further quickly in 2020.

Given a reliance on arts and entertainment advertising, Steve Yaeger, the Star Tribune’s chief of marketing and circulation, said in an email “it’s no surprise the pandemic has been particularly hard on alt-weeklies, and despite everyone’s best efforts circumstances caught up with City Pages.”

With a strong newspaper, strong public radio and commercial broadcast, and digital-only MinnPost, Minnesota has also been home to a number of alt-weeklies through the years. The late David Carr, the much-admired New York Times media columnist, spent the early part of his career at Twin Cities Reader, another local alt-weekly that folded in 1997.

And now for the rest of the story

On Nov. 10, 2008, New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped by the Taliban while researching a book outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. Also kidnapped were a local reporter and their driver. After seven months of captivity in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rohde and the other reporter, Tahir Ludin, made a daring escape by climbing over a wall where they were being held in Pakistan. (The driver did not escape with them.) They then made their way to safety.

On Wednesday, nearly 12 years after the abduction, an Afghan man described as a former Taliban commander was arrested and charged in the kidnapping. The New York Times’ Benjamin Weiser reports the suspect, Haji Najibullah, has been charged with six counts, including kidnapping, hostage taking, conspiracy and using a machine gun in furtherance of violent crimes, and that each count carries a potential life sentence.

Weiser also wrote, “The circumstances of Mr. Najibullah’s capture and arrest were not described in a news release issued along with the indictment, but the release said he had been transferred to the United States from Ukraine.”

Special guest

ABC “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir. (Courtesy: ABC News)

ABC “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir was a guest Tuesday night on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” where Kimmel pointed out that the ABC evening news has often been the most-watched program in America during 2020.

“I really think one of the silver linings about such an unsettling time in the country is that our viewers and Americans actually are hungry for information, and for the truth, and for facts,” Muir said. “We’ve got a once-in-a-century pandemic. We’ve got an economy being tested, tens of millions out of work. Throw on top of that a presidential election. I do feel for people at home, and I do recognize that we have a responsibility here every night.”

And Muir makes the case that journalism has never been more important.

“In this time, I think it’s really important for journalists to have each others’ backs,” Muir said. “Kristen Welker of NBC did such a great job with that final debate. I think she did a service to the country by helping to navigate a more coherent debate, more of a debate over policy than certainly what we saw in the first debate. I think that we have to have each others’ backs. This is an important time in our country and the news matters.”

Final thoughts about the World Series

The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate after winning the World Series on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The shortened and strange Major League Baseball season ended with a terrific World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays. The Dodgers won the series in six games for their first title since 1988.

From a media standpoint, kudos to the Fox Sports crew, especially announcers Joe Buck and John Smoltz, for a terrific series. Buck and Smoltz are elite-level broadcasters who are a joy to listen to.

Meanwhile, strong work by Fox Sports and several other outlets for reporting on the story that Dodgers star Justin Turner had to come out of Tuesday night’s Game 6 because of a positive COVID-19 test. For a good recap, check out Jeff Passan’s ESPN story, “World Series 2020: The Oddest of World Series Ends with the Most 2020 Moment of the Season.”

And there’s this worthwhile column, too, from The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga: “In a Moment That Called for Self-Sacrifice, Justin Turner Opted for a Frustrating Celebration.”

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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