The Times called an audible and fumbled

Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018 1:36 PM
Traffic passes the New York Times building in New York.

When The New York Times published an anonymous opinion piece Wednesday purporting to be written by a senior member of the Donald Trump administration and claiming that the author and others were part of the internal “resistance,” it was as though someone dropped a bomb in a lake.

Among those splashed was The Times.

The piece was prefaced with an editor’s note which reads: “The Times today is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

It’s an impressive argument but also a poor one. We don’t think The Times should be taking rare steps with its standards. (At the Herald, we discourage anonymity). Instead, such lapses in judgment by a sterling paper – albeit by its editorial board, working independent of news – make us sad. Because they do nothing but play into the hands of the fake-news crowd.

In what kind of hothouse is the piece so extraordinary that The Times bends its own rules? And what are those standards worth if you call audibles?

If the writer hasn’t the courage to sign his or her name, and with that, resign, how can The Times ask us to believe this person is the stalwart steady state, courageously serving the greater good? It’s just one more whisper campaign.

The piece had impact, which is not reason enough to publish it. Perhaps not coincidentally, it fell into the swirl of advance tidbits from Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” an inside look at the Trump presidency, which will be published next Tuesday. It seemed to reinforce Woodward’s assertions, based on anonymous sources, that the president’s administration is working to undermine him.

Instantly, it set off a guessing game. Some thought it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Some said Vice President Mike Pence. Our favorite guess is Ivanka Trump, for the Shakespearian delight of it. If this isn’t King Lear, it is at least a soap opera. We have nothing against either, but, as The Times maintains, this is serious business.

Some will say desperate times call for desperate measures. Yet we know, just from reading The Times, that these apparently have been desperate times since Trump was inaugurated. What is new today?

Only the sense that Woodward’s book, the fourth tell-all of this presidency, would further destabilize the administration. It must have been tempting to give it another shove. But not ethical.

Some will say that if we chide The Times, we’re supporting the president, who promptly responded to the piece’s publication with a one-word tweet: “TREASON.” That he cannot differentiate treason from disloyalty is worrisome enough, but we are also concerned that this criticism – you’re either in the resistance or you’re supporting him – narrows the reasonable center into oblivion. There seems to be a lot of that going around these days.

It pains us to say it – especially when that fine news organization has been under steady attack from the president – but when you can’t tell a duty from a stunt, you probably need a time-out.