When I became editor of The Reporter in Lansdale, Pa. in 1996, I inherited a promising staff of young journalists. Supported by some talented veterans, they produced a lot of terrific community journalism.
I also inherited a daily Opinion page feature called “Sound-Off!” that allowed people to comment without signing their names. I hated it and soon eliminated it.
Those memories rushed back last week, when The New York Times published the anonymous column by someone only identified as “a senior official in the Trump administration.”
The column, which has led to a whirlwind of authorship speculation, said, in part, “that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
This came on the heels of the release of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear,” also about President Trump’s behavior and fitness for office and also written relying largely on anonymous sources.
In seeking to explain the unusual step of publishing an unsigned, op-ed piece, the Times wrote:
“We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”
I’ll respond to that now with the same words I used 22 years ago about “Sound-Off!”
There is no place for anonymous commentary in a newspaper. If you have an opinion to express, you must have the courage of your convictions and sign your name to it or we won’t publish it.
Anonymous sources in news stories are tricky enough. They have their place, though they raise credibility issues. Many important stories — including Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for The Washington Post on Watergate — would not have been possible without them.
But Deep Throat never wrote an anonymous column.
Our reporters and editors here understand that we use unnamed sources only in rare cases, usually with abuse victims coming forward to tell their stories. In all cases, I need to approve publication.
Commentary is another matter. We simply do not publish unsigned letters or columns in our pages.
Online comments, a selection of which we publish in print each Sunday, are gleaned from Facebook, where names are required. I can’t vouch 100 percent that those names are always real, but the majority post frequently enough that we come to know them and even occasionally communicate with them offline.
I have no doubt that if the Times had used the author’s name, he or she would have almost immediately lost their job.
But if you feel as strongly as this author apparently did, why in the world would you want to continue to work at the White House?
Getting back to my experience with “Sound-Off!,” I did not kill the feature right away. I invited contributors to use their names and leave their phone numbers so we could call back to confirm — as we do to this day with letters to the editor here. I even had T-shirts made up that said “I signed off on Sound-Off!”
Readers rejected my plea to come clean. The feature soon disappeared.
The circulation director was not happy with me, convinced my decision would cost us customers. It probably did.
Nevertheless, I believed then and believe now there’s no room for anonymous comments or columns in our pages.
And so, I don’t believe the column the Times published last week was fit to print.
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