Anonymous Op-Ed in The Times causes a stir online and in the White House

It is exceedingly rare for The Times to grant anonymity to a writer on its op-ed pages, and the paper could cite only a handful of previous cases.

It is exceedingly rare for The Times to grant anonymity to a writer on its op-ed pages, and the paper could cite only a handful of previous cases. But James Dao, the paper’s op-ed editor, said in an interview that the material in the essay was important enough to the public interest to merit an exception.

“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,” Dao said.

It took less than 90 minutes from the column’s publication — which prompted news channels to cut in with special reports and set off a frenzy among White House aides — for the president himself to go on live television and denounce the essay, its author and the news organization that published it.

“We have somebody in what I call the failing New York Times talking about he’s part of the resistance within the Trump administration — this is what we have to deal with,” Trump said in the East Room of the White House, where reporters had gathered for a previously scheduled photo-op.

Trump called the essay “gutless” and said its anonymous author was “probably here for all the wrong reasons” — evoking, perhaps inadvertently, a popular phrase from the reality television show “The Bachelor.” The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, later issued a statement deeming the op-ed piece “pathetic, reckless and selfish,” adding: “This coward should do the right thing and resign.”

Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman, responded: “We are incredibly proud to have published this piece, which adds significant value to the public’s understanding of what is going on in the Trump administration from someone who is in a position to know.”

The op-ed article was submitted to Times opinion editors last week through an intermediary, Dao said. “It was clear early on that the writer wanted anonymity, but we didn’t grant anything until we read it and we were confident that they were who they said they were,” he said.

Dao declined to elaborate on the op-ed editors’ internal discussions, citing the need to protect the author’s identity. But news outlets and online forums were abuzz with speculation.

CNN cut into coverage of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh to analyze the essay. Rachel Maddow called into MSNBC, hours before her prime-time slot, to say, “This feels like the end of something, and I don’t know what happens next.”

The Fox News website declared “Trump Wants a Name.” Media pundits questioned whether The Times had been right to grant anonymity. “This one is a PR stunt,” wrote Erik Wemple of The Washington Post.

And reporters and online commenters alike began dissecting the article’s language for clues about the identity of its author. Dan Bloom, a producer for the podcast company Panoply, noted on Twitter that the word “lodestar,” which appears toward the end, had popped up in speeches by Vice President Mike Pence. Hundreds of Twitter users retweeted his theory.

Other reporters recalled the 1990s-era efforts to unmask the author of “Primary Colors,” a roman à clef about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. The author was eventually revealed to be journalist Joe Klein, after The Washington Post commissioned a handwriting analysis of notes in the margins of a manuscript.

Not every critic of Trump welcomed the piece’s publication.

David Jolly, a former Republican representative from Florida, said on MSNBC that if the author “wants to do something in service to the nation, you have to come forward and sign your name for this.” David Frum, the conservative writer whose latest book is “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic,” mocked the writer’s motivations: “See, we only look complicit! Actually, we’re the real heroes of the story.”

The Times said it had published only a handful of anonymously written op-ed pieces, several of them by authors whose safety could be endangered if they were publicly identified.

One anonymous piece, published in June, was written by an unauthorized immigrant facing deportation and gang-related threats. An op-ed article in 2009 was written by a student in Iran who, for reasons of safety, asked to be identified only by his first name.

The Times op-ed page operates independently of the paper’s newsroom and Washington bureau. The use of anonymous sources in the paper’s news articles is discouraged, allowed when newsworthy information cannot be otherwise confirmed.

By the evening, those who fretted that the op-ed article would inflame Trump had some evidence to support their theory. At 6:15 p.m., he posted a one-word tweet: “TREASON?” Shortly before 8 p.m., the president asked on Twitter if the author of the piece was merely “another phony source,” and he called on The Times to “turn him/her over to government at once!”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Michael M. Grynbaum © 2018 The New York Times

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