Commentary: There are a few rules for those wanting to express an opinion in the Sun-News op-ed section. No swearing and no consumer complaints against local businesses are two of them.
And then there is the biggie: all letters and guest columns must be signed. No anonymous comments. Everybody is welcome to step forward and be heard, but all must have the courage to stand behind their words.
It had been a pretty universal rule for newspapers throughout the country, until last week when the New York Times decided to publish criticism of President Donald Trump offered by a “senior official.”
Times editors defended the decision by arguing, “publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”
Newspapers, including the Sun-News, will occasionally use anonymous sources to report news that is not available through public documents or on-the-record sources.
But opinions are always available.
And, frankly, there was nothing in this insider account that we haven’t heard before.
The writer refers to himself (or herself) and others in the administration as “unsung heroes.” He describes a president who is undisciplined, amoral and perfectly clueless, and an administration working on two different tracks – with the president publicly espousing one policy and his officials quietly working to implement something much different.
It confirmed a narrative that has been told repeatedly by sources inside the White House. And, it had the desired effect of getting under the president’s skin and sending him off on another angry tangent.
But without knowing who wrote the op-ed, it’s hard to know how much credence to give to it. What kind of access does this person have? What are his or her motivations? What is their history for reliability?
And, until the writer’s identity is exposed, attention is diverted from the valid points made in the column to trying to figure out who wrote it.
Times editors certainly understood how much interest there would be in the column. Still, I think they made a mistake in publishing it.
The Trump presidency has been an assault on traditional norms and standards that have served our nation and its institutions well for years. In this case, the Times has assisted in weakening its own norms.
Having presided over both the Soundoff feature that used to run every day in the newspaper, and the Topix commentary section we used to have online, I have no doubt that anonymous comments are consistently less honest and more hostile; less intelligent and more emotional; less reflective and more reactive.
Now that the Times has opened the door for one anonymous commentary, where will they draw the line? Is the new standard now anybody who can “provide an important perspective?”
If the Times had insisted on maintaining its standards, there is a good chance that we would have never seen this purported inside glance into the White House. But there is also the chance that the writer would have found the courage to step forward.
Then we would have really had something.
Walter Rubel is editorial page editor of the Sun-News. He can be reached at email@example.com or follow @WalterRubel on Twitter.