Opinion

Trump loves to say the media treat him unfairly. In the case of the NYT op-ed, he's right: Robyn Urback

Absent an explanation — a good one — the Times has simply presented a deranged president with more fodder with which he can abuse the press.

Beyond driving the president bananas, what's the point of an anonymous op-ed telling us what we already know?

Absent an explanation — a good one — the Times has simply presented a deranged president with more fodder with which he can abuse the press. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

As a general rule, columnists are supposed to avoid wasting too many column inches writing about their own profession. It's shallow and boring — not unlike when a couple at a dinner party shows off pictures of their baby cutting his first tooth. We tend to vastly overestimate how much other people care.

But when the publishing of an anonymous opinion piece sends the U.S. president into a paranoid tailspin, the rules are a little bit different. (When your baby's swollen gums provoke Donald Trump to tweet "TREASON?" I promise I'll sit through your whole photo album.)

On Wednesday, the New York Times published an op-ed by a senior official in the Trump administration who wrote he (or she) is part of a "resistance" inside the White House that is actively "thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses."

The author suggested Trump is erratic, impetuous; that he shows a preference for dictators and a disinterest in democratic principles. The writer then assured readers that "there are adults in the room" who are "trying to do what's right even when Donald Trump won't."

It's not clear what the writer was trying to accomplish with his op-ed, beyond trying to soothe his troubled, conflicted soul. But less clear is why the New York Times, in publishing an anonymous op-ed, deemed it appropriate to allow someone to capitalize on the authority conferred by a New York Times label, but without the burden of accountability.

Absent an explanation — a good one — the Times has simply presented a deranged president with more fodder with which he can abuse the press. Trump loves to say the media treat him unfairly, and insulate his critics. In this case, he has a point.

Threshold for anonymity

There are no hard and fast rules about when it is appropriate to grant anonymity. But the threshold must be high, especially when the source is not simply providing a quote, but penning a column entirely in his own words. It is an extraordinary privilege to make an uninterrupted argument on a page, so it should come with the burden of being held accountable for that opinion.

The test for anonymity is generally one of balance: the value of the information should outweigh the drawbacks of withholding the source — in particular, the risk of stoking public distrust. 

CBC's Opinion page, in fact, published an anonymous op-ed earlier this week by an inmate at an East Coast jail detailing the unacceptable living conditions therein.

We decided the inmate's concern about physical retribution for speaking out was credible enough to justify withholding his name, and that the value of his message still outweighed the flak that comes with running a piece without a byline. The thinking was that we almost never read columns from inmates behind bars, and though the points he made weren't entirely new, they certainly have a more visceral impact when presented firsthand. That said, the decision to publish was not made lightly — or frankly, all that confidently.

But while that writer feared for his personal safety, the ostensible concern the anonymous Times writer had with disclosing his name was of losing his job (of which he appears not all that fond). Yet that is a risk every person who writes a column — especially a freelancer with another career — entertains when he or she publishes a controversial opinion.

What's more, the information provided in the Times op-ed was not all that different from what we already know. Since the beginning of Trump's term, sources have told reporters of dissent within the administration, of attempts to control Trump's erratic behaviour, of "stacking" the president's schedule to keep him distracted, of his short attention spanvolatility, and of efforts to thwart his destructive impulses. This was the same message but told firsthand, which changes little in this case.

In fact, a day before the Times published its op-ed, excerpts from a forthcoming book by Washington Post legend Bob Woodward went into actual detail about internal efforts to stymie Trump's more calamitous foreign policy instincts, including how former economic adviser Gary Cohn stole documents off the president's desk to prevent him from withdrawing from trade deals with Mexico and Canada (NAFTA), as well as with South Korea.

Had the public had its fingers in its ears for the past two years and was somehow not aware that the Trump White House is essentially a den of degenerates, there would be far more justification for running the anonymous op-ed. But knowing what we know, it comes off as an unnecessary provocation.

The same argument could be made of the Toronto Star's reporting of off-the-record comments Trump made about NAFTA in a conversation with Bloomberg last week.

While the Star was technically in the clear to publish the leaked quotes (off the record only pertains to the parties actually involved in the conversation), the episode nevertheless provided fantastic new material with which Trump could rail about the "dishonest" press. And since many readers, understandably, do not know the intricacies of journalistic agreements, they simply see the words "off the record" and "published," and believe Trump has a point.

The justification for reporting the quotes anyway, despite the risk of bad press for the press, would have been stronger still if the information published was of new and profound public interest. But the "bombshell," as the Star described it, was that Trump was negotiating in bad faith — something we've heard over and over again, including from Trump's own mouth. The result, then, is the media look like they are doing something sketchy in order to essentially repeat what we already know.

Ideally, journalists could just publish these sorts of things without worrying about how it will affect public perceptions of the media. But pretending we live in a world where the U.S. president has not called journalists "the enemy of the people" is hopelessly myopic. That doesn't mean we shouldn't publish stories and op-eds that provoke fiery backlash, but simply that we should have a damn good reason when we decide to do so. It's hard to find one here.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at: