In printing last week an op-ed column by an anonymous White House official criticising the inadequacies of its present occupant, the New York Times acted well within the bounds of accepted journalistic propriety.
I would add just one proviso. The paper was right to publish so long as its editors first established beyond doubt the credibility of the source.
In this case, credibility means that two questions must have been adequately answered. First, was the source authoritative – that is, in a sufficiently senior position, and sufficiently respected, to know what he, or she, was talking about? Second, did the source have any personal axe to grind that would have rendered the piece too subjective to be reliable?
The paper’s editors knew the identity of the source, of course, and so were in a position to evaluate the issue of credibility on both counts. This exercise, I am certain, would have been carried out, stringently and solemnly. I also have no doubt that the Times’ editorial supervisors, knowing the controversy the article would generate, debated the issue long and hard before publishing. Say what one might about the New York Times – and I, among others, have from time to time said a great deal of a critical nature – it has a record of being nothing if not scrupulous on such matters.
‘Anonymity’ is no more a rude word than ‘media’ is. The media relies on anonymity to preserve and protect its sources, as it has done throughout the history of the world. And rightly so, for without anonymity there would be no whistle-blowers, and without whistle-blowers, governments, corporations and other powerful institutions would act with ruthless impunity against the public interest, as indeed many have demonstrated.
No newsman I have ever known prefers an anonymous source to an identified one. That does not mean that the anonymous source is tainted. Some must remain unnamed because of the nature of what they are revealing, or the risks that they may be taking. Using an unnamed source does not in itself detract from the accuracy or plausibility of a story, provided the necessary editorial checks are carried out, and in some case, health warnings given.
For this we must trust the organs of the media. If none can be trusted, which is this administration’s position, who and what are we left with to inform us of the state of the world? Governments? The so-called social media? Blogs (like this one)? Special-interest web sites?
It can be argued until the proverbial cows come home that the New York Times is biased against this president. The paper’s editorial stance – confined to the leader column, one hopes – is undoubtedly liberal. But ‘liberal’, like ‘conservative’, is a relative word and so, meaningless. To state the blindingly obvious, some papers are liberal, others conservative – and there are more of the latter, I would guess, than the former. Regardless of the political inclination of its owner, or editor, would any respectable journal have declined, given the opportunity, to print these revelations, least of all on political grounds? I doubt it.
Or, at least, I would hope not.
Many commentators of the political right are outraged. One senator has gone so far as to call for those White House officials designated as ‘suspects’ to be subjected to lie-detector tests. Even less strident critics of the administration have called for a wide-ranging investigation. These are, to say the least, grotesque overreactions, and probably futile.
Even this paranoid president is unlikely to respond to them with anything but rhetorical flourishes in stump speeches, which he had been doing anyway, with rants about ‘leaks’ and ‘fake news’, and long before the Times column appeared, long before he took office. He will continue to do so. The media as the ‘enemy of the people’ has been among the most identifiable and in some quarters the most popular themes of this administration. That is the nature of this particular Washington beast.
The public is entitled to know what the author of the op-ed piece exposed. Readers may decide, as is their right, to believe the revelations or dismiss them, along with the motives of the paper that published them.
But heaven help us all if we graduate to a society in which governments and other organs of power are to be automatically believed and trusted with no one daring to call them to account without sacrificing their job – or their life.