The Times’ opinion section has granted writers anonymity in the past. But that’s typically because the author, such as an undocumented immigrant or Syrian refugee, would be in clear danger if his or her identity were revealed. Dao said it was the first time in “anyone’s memory that we’ve done it with an American official.”
In the op-ed, the Times said it was withholding the author’s identity because the writer’s “job would be jeopardized by its disclosure.” That same justification is frequently used by Times reporters to grant sources anonymity, but Dao said that on the opinion side, editors don’t view an official speaking out in quite the same way that reporters view sources.
“We don’t call these people sources, we call them writers,” Dao said.
“Our mission is a bit different,” he added. “It’s to get people to write as honestly as they can about what they’re experiencing.”
In the piece, the senior administration official described high-ranking staffers as “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations” and having even discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to possibly remove the president from office.
While Trump’s erratic behavior and the concerns of exasperated staffers have been chronicled before, The Times’ framing and first-person perspective helped the piece ricochet quickly across social media. It also appeared amid this week’s frenzy over Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book, “Fear,” which, according to The Washington Post, depicts “Trump’s inner sanctum” as trying “to control his impulses and prevent disasters.”
The president already trashed Woodward’s book on Tuesday, claiming the legendary journalist “made up” quotes. (Woodward says he stands by his reporting). On Wednesday, Trump took aim at the “failing New York Times” for running what he called a “gutless editorial.” He later cryptically tweeted,“Treason?”
Dao said the the senior administration official reached out to him through an intermediary. He said that the op-ed page is a platform to “let people express themselves in their own words” and that “there was no effort to hide, mask or otherwise distort the person’s writing voice.”
Across Twitter, internet sleuths pounced, as users fixated on keywords and clues to try to run down the writer’s identity. A few Times accounts even provided unintentional, but inaccurate, clues.
Assistant Managing Editor Sam Dolnick tweeted about an op-ed from a “senior White House staffer”— as opposed to the op-ed itself, which referred much more broadly to a “senior administration official.” He later had to walk his tweet back,saying, “I have zero knowledge about the identity.”
Similarly, The Times’ official Twitter account referred to the writer as “he,” but Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said that the tweet, which remains up, was an error and that the person who posted it does not know the op-ed writer’s identity; only senior opinion editors do.
Cooper said she expected that Times reporters would try to determine the identity of the writer, like journalists at any other outlet.
“That’s our job, right?” she said. “The first thing I wanted to know was who wrote it, but I can guarantee you that the op-ed section is not going to tell us.”
No, the op-ed section isn’t going to tell reporters the writer’s identity — or how they should handle it.
“The Times newsroom is going to do what it’s going to do,” Dao said. “Just as they do not demand we run a certain op-ed, we don‘t tell them what to report on and not report on.”