The most disturbing aspect of the New York Times op-ed by an anonymous “senior official in the Trump Administration” isn’t its content.
The content isn’t significant enough to make an impression.
“Meetings with [President Trump] veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back,” writes Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. The “revelation” that Trump rambles incoherently and can’t keep a thought straight is not news to anyone who has watched Trump speak more than a minute and a half.
What is scary is that the stewards of a grand 167-year-old publishing institution can cavalierly abandon the basic standards of journalism in search of a social media splash in their tepid jihad against a sitting president.
My first response upon hearing about the anonymous op-ed was to read it. What a letdown! This #ResistanceInsider narrative contains nothing we didn’t already know about Trump or his mess of a White House. A trilogy of tell-all books by Michael Wolff, Omarosa Manigault Newman and Bob Woodward, plus a day-to-day geyser of leaks, confirm that the president and his monster’s ball of astonishingly nefarious idiots act just as stupidly behind closed doors as they do when they babble in front of cameras.
Next I checked the Times’ rules for anonymous sourcing.
Reliance on anonymous sources within the government has gotten the Times burned on a number of occasions. “Times editors are cracking down on the use of anonymous sources,” public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote on March 15, 2016.
The most recent word on anonymous sources comes courtesy of Times standards editor Philip B. Corbett. “Under our guidelines, anonymous sources should be used only for information that we think is newsworthy and credible, and that we are not able to report any other way,” Corbett wrote on June 14, 2018. What was newsworthy about the “I Am Part of the Self-Congratulatory Resistance” piece? Nada. What was in there that the Times was unable to report another way? Nothing. The Times has run other pieces covering the same exact ground: “Trump’s Chaos Theory for the Oval Office Is Taking Its Toll,” March 1, 2018. “Trump Tries to Regroup as the West Wing Battles Itself,” July 29, 2017. “Does Trump Want Even More Chaos in the White House?” May 9, 2018.
Americans are weird. Smokers wake up in the morning wheezing and hocking up loogies, but they need the Surgeon General to convince them tobacco is bad for them. People who live in the same place feel the weather get warmer every year but they still aren’t sure about climate change. Jesus, people, why can’t you trust yourselves?
Now it’s the media’s Trump-bashing. These Captain Obviouses keep flailing from the ridiculous (two years in, there’s still no evidence of Russia-Trump election collusion) to the inane (Trump is cray-cray, it’s really true, some anonymous person, trust us they’re important and know what they’re talking about, says so).
The obvious truth is, Trump was impeachable the second he took office. Temperamentally and intellectually, he wasn’t ever and never will be up to the job. Chief Justice John Roberts ought to have refused to swear in this loon; Congress should have blocked him taking office; the Capitol Police shouldn’t have let him and Melania move into the White House.
The guy shouldn’t be president. Why is the Times breaking its rules to tell us what everyone already knows? Clicks?
During these times of disruption and collapse, it is tempting for struggling legacy media outlets like newspapers to discard their standards to compete with the young Turks (or Millennial techs) who often eat their lunch. But old-school institutions can only survive by maintaining their credibility. They must adhere to their own ethical guidelines, or die.
The Los Angeles Times violated numerous parts of its published Ethical Guidelines when it fired me as its staff cartoonist as a favor to the LAPD. Like the New York Times, one breach was violating their own rules about anonymous sources.
The LA Times repeatedly lied to their readers in their two articles about me. One lie was their claim that the LAPD had officially released documents that proved I had made up a story about being mistreated by a cop who ticketed me for jaywalking. Not only did the documents show I had told the truth, the LAPD wasn’t the source. It was the then-police chief, Charlie Beck, a sleazy official whose tenure was marked by one scandal after another. He was acting on his own, outside official channels, using documents of unknown provenance. Seducing a gullible publisher with a handoff of sketchy documents in a backroom meeting was par for his course.
If the LA Times had told its readers that Beck was the source, people from Santa Monica to East LA would have rolled their eyes and turned the page. Everyone knew I had been making fun of the LAPD, and Beck personally, for years. Everyone knew Beck was a turd.
So the LA Times granted Beck anonymity.
On paper, the LA Times and NY Times had similar standards. “When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers,” read the LA Times’ Ethical Guidelines, published in 2014. “We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious or self-serving. Sources should never be permitted to use the shield of anonymity to voice speculation or to make ad hominem attacks. An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation, and we should state those reasons when they are relevant to what we publish.”
In real life, corrupt publishers and craven editors ignore their own rules. Nothing could have been more “self-serving” than the chief of police of a department whose pension fund owned the parent company of the paper firing a cartoonist who made fun of him. Since there was no actual proof I had lied — there couldn’t be since I’d told the truth — the LA Times “speculated” that I probably lied. Nothing could be more “ad hominem” than falsely accusing a journalist of lying. As police chief, Beck had no “fear or retaliation.”
I’m suing them for defamation and wrongful termination. This could have been avoided had the LA Times adhered to their own stated principles.
Even if you hate Donald Trump, it shouldn’t be hard to see that the New York Times is on a dangerous path.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)