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News Masquerading As Opinion

The New York Times building facade at night
photo by Jason Kuffer

There was a time when any newspaper editor would have recognized that a group of government employees conspiring to thwart the president in whose administration they served is the story of a lifetime.

Like any big story, it would require corroboration, even if the primary source demanded anonymity. The editor would have enlisted reporters to track down other sources to verify the facts and, in an ideal world, would have gotten some of them to do so on the record. For a useful example, consider the approach used by The New York Times and The New Yorker in covering the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Anonymous sources were paired with on-the-record allegations of Weinstein’s wrongdoing. The anonymous contributions were important, but not on their own. The Times has been burned before by relying too much on a single source.

In this case, however, the Times did not report the story as news at all, at least initially.

Instead, an anonymous person – let’s call that person “Sore Throat” – claimed to be part of such a group. Jeopardizing what little brand equity as a news source it has left, the Times decided to run this claim as an anonymous op-ed. Sore Throat’s column was not truly an op-ed at all, however; it was a confession. As we all know, confessions can be false. But that does not change the fact that the Times chose not to pursue the extraordinary claim as a launching point for actual journalism. Yes, the Times’ op-ed page operates independently of its newsroom, but I trust they have the newsroom’s contact information.

Anonymous opinion pieces have a place. That place could even be the op-ed page of The New York Times under rare circumstances, such as when the physical safety of the writer or others was at stake. But anonymity because the writer’s “job would be jeopardized”? When Sore Throat freely admits that the way he or she sees the job is to thwart the boss – and the 63 million people who elected him – preserving that job does not come close to meeting the threshold of necessary anonymity. We would not have run a similar column as an anonymous comment on this blog.

Assuming it is true, Sore Throat’s confession is not an admission of treason, despite the president’s ruminations on Twitter and at a recent Montana rally. Sore Throat and his or her supposed allies are offering no aid or comfort to the country’s enemies. But Sore Throat’s actions might be a form of fraud, one that prosecutors have historically defined as an employee depriving an employer (in this case, the American people) of honest services. Or, to use a more modern if nebulous term, it could be collusion.

Or the column may be a simple confession of boss management, which is not a crime at all. Millions of people do it constructively all the time. If Donald Trump gives his staff unclear directions, or says something in the moment that a staff member believes does not reflect what he actually wants, delaying action pending clarification is a good thing. And allowing a boss to vent without overreacting to his emotional outbursts is often necessary, if unfortunate, in certain workplaces. The West Wing is likely no different.

Nor is Sore Throat revealing any great secret in observing that people have considered whether the 25th Amendment might apply to Trump. Many people outside the White House have publicly speculated about the same question. Nothing actionable has presented itself, so no one has taken action.

The pastime of trying to guess Sore Throat’s identity took off nearly the moment the column ran. Some readers who are fond of puzzles have tried their hand at analyzing the text itself, especially the choice of the word “lodestar.” Others have tried to use potential motive or the particular nature of the critiques of Trump to narrow the pool of potential authors. The White House, too, has reportedly joined the guessing game, but as of this writing all speculation is still just that. Only a few people at the Times know for sure (not including their switchboard operators).

The most likely scenario is that a narcissistic functionary who comes under the Times’ elastic definition of “a senior official in the Trump administration” thinks that anything good that has happened in the last two years has nothing to do with the president and that American voters did not know what they were getting on Nov. 8, 2016, despite all evidence to the contrary. Both points are debatable.

Even if you agree with Sore Throat’s analysis of the situation, there are all sorts of checks and balances in our constitutional system that limit the damage that a functionally or mentally incompetent president can do. None require disloyalty within the administration. The courts are perfectly capable of blocking executive overreach. Congress can remove a president from office for pretty much any reason. And the 25th Amendment provides a way to temporarily redirect presidential powers when the elected officeholder is incapacitated.

As I have written before, these checks on the president do not require a particular official to neglect his or her duty to faithfully carry out the lawful orders of the chief executive. If officials are ethically unable to do so, they can always resign. If they do not, they should not be surprised when their bosses remove and replace them.

Either Sore Throat’s mea culpa is pure fiction and there is no internal cabal in the executive branch working against Trump, or it is true and The New York Times has hamstrung itself in failing to diligently verify and report this major scoop. Either way, the republic will survive thanks to its constitutional checks and balances – which is more than I can promise for the Times’ reputation.

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One Response to "News Masquerading As Opinion"

  • Jonathan Krim
    September 11, 2018 - 12:12 pm

    Larry, thanks for this well-crafted piece. And “Sore Throat” made me chuckle out loud.

    I am conflicted about what the NYT did here, though I would wager that they got this submission under condition that it not be pursued for reporting purposes. Given the insistence on anonymity, I am not sure whether I would have published it; it’s a decision on the horn of a dilemma wrapped inside a Hobson’s choice.

    But I must take issue with a key section of your piece, to wit:

    “The most likely scenario is that a narcissistic functionary who comes under the Times’ elastic definition of “a senior official in the Trump administration” thinks that anything good that has happened in the last two years has nothing to do with the president and that American voters did not know what they were getting on Nov. 8, 2016, despite all evidence to the contrary. Both points are debatable.”

    Why is this the most likely scenario? Ascribing those motives would suggest someone inside the White House who has opposed the president’s agenda from day one, and who believes that those who were responsible for him or her having a job are fools. I find that to be the *least* likely scenario. Instead, why is it not likely that this is what it purports to be: A treatise from someone (or group of someones), who have been surprised and disillusioned by what they see as this president’s lack of intellectual and temperamental fitness for the office, and who has impulses that could be dangerous.

    We can play the parlor games all day about who did this and why. The substance is what matters, and the Times’ decision to publish is a legitimate question, rather than leaning on vague references to, and talking points about, the paper’s reputation.