SECTIONS
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
CEBU

Seares: Explosive op-ed piece in NY Times: a question of not naming the writer

PRESIDENT Trump raged and ranted, angrier than usual, when the New York Times ran Wednesday (Sept. 5) an “op-ed” article titled “I am part of the resistance inside the Trump administration.”

Written by a senior administration official, whom NYT said it knew but didn’t name, the piece figuratively set off Trump frothing in the mouth, castigating the leaker (“gutless”), the act (“treason”) and the news medium (“the failing, unpatriotic New York Times”).

In effect, it’s an insider’s confession of a subversion within waged by the writer and “other like-minded” staffers quietly foiling parts of his agenda that hurt the country. The publication shook the White House, controlled the news cycle, and fed grist to the gossip mill, mainly the whodunit part: who wrote it?

Writer is hooded

The piece mostly affirmed what many others outside the White House have been alleging about Trump (“incompetent, dangerous and prone to volcanic outbursts”). But this time it comes from one of Trump’s aides who’s not leaking it in bits and dribble but in a long article in the newspaper Trump must hate most.

Only that he or she is not showing name, face or any ID other than being a senior administration official.

Letters aren’t op-ed

“Op-ed” is short for “opposite editorial (or editorial page).” It’s written by a person who’s not hired or paid by the paper and may deal on a current subject. The contribution offers insight or perspective from outside the paper, usually an expert or experienced person.

Letters to the editor or readers’ views are not op-ed in the strict sense, although an op-ed may come from the editor’s mail. The local papers and even the Manila-based dailies assign letters and op-ed pieces to the same page.

The “editorial” that Trump castigated was an op-ed. Distinction here is not petty: An editorial is the opinion of the editorial board and the publisher. An op-ed is opinion of a writer who isn’t affiliated with the paper.

Rule on anonymity

An op-ed editor who doesn’t name the writer is similar to a news reporter who doesn’t identify his news source. But an opinion may inflict larger damage because it directly accuses and castigates, as the NY op-ed on Trump did, with the accuser and punisher covered by a hood.

Under rules of the Washington Post, NYT’s rival, the cloaked op-ed would’ve been rejected. “Anonymous or pseudonymous” opinion pieces are banned. The reason being, as one Wapo editor put it, “if you make an argument, you should have the wherewithal and the courage to put your name to it.” The WP editor though concedes there must have been “extraordinary or remarkable circumstances” that prompted NYT to print it.

Compare with social media

The furor set off by the NYT anonymous piece seems odd, given the false stories and un-sourced opinions that are, with no sweat or agony, routinely allowed in social media.

Editing decisions, absent in much of digital media, are carefully made in the mainstream press. NYT decided to print the op-ed only after rigorous vetting and discussion among top editors.

Worth the jail stint

Trump has called NYT names, which was expected, but his demands on the paper exceed his usual clamor. He wants the leaker identified and turned in as the matter, he fumed at a White House photo-op for sheriffs, concerns national security.

We’re not sure about shield laws in the U.S. but a number of American journalists had been jailed before for withholding sources’ names. Under our Sotto law, a journalist cannot be compelled to name his source unless required by “the security of the state,” whose meaning depends upon how the court or a congressional committee defines it in each particular case.

Maybe the NYT editors believe that helping expose an “unfit president” is worth the risk of a jail term and the fury of his outbursts.


VIEW COMMENTS