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Editorial: The importance of the anonymous news source

The first line of the anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times that has sent the president and the country into a search for the mysterious writer reads: “President Trump is facing a test to his presidency unlike any faced by a modern American leader.” This first line displays parallels to the very means of publication that it was written for; the press is facing a test to their First Amendment rights that is unlike any faced by modern publications.

The leader of our nation has decided that this anonymous op-ed piece, written by a “Senior Official in the Trump Administration,” is a threat to national security. He calls for the author to come forward and show him or herself to the nation, and that hiding behind anonymity is “gutless,” as he proclaimed in a characteristic twitter rant. The resulting speculation has captured headlines of many news publications; “Who is the anonymous writer?”

The article, published Sept. 5, reveals that a conglomerate of select administrative officials are working silently in the background of the presidency to “frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” It refers to President Trump’s leadership style as “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective,” as well as “impulsive and ill-informed.” It is easy to see why the president might be upset that a senior member of his own administration has publicly stated that his team is trying to undermine him, but the response from the president is anything but appropriate.

This is because his response is to turn to old habits of directly attacking the press. President Trump immediately criticized the “failing” New York Times and argued that the senior official might not even exist and instead is another “phony” source utilized by the newspaper. In the same tweet, he called for the Times to “turn in” the author to the government. This declaration is haunting in its implications of what would be done to the official once he or she was turned in. In fact, this very call for revelation may be behind the author’s decision to request anonymity.  This president has displayed time and time again, through his cycle of naming, firing and replacing administrators, that he will use his power to remove those who disagree with him, or get in his way, from their positions.

President Trump’s attempts to discredit The New York Times, and the American press as an entity, through baseless accusations and efforts to wound the public’s’ trust in news, a tenet of our free society.

The ability to publish an anonymous source is a fundamental right for newspapers. The anonymous source is an asset to journalists looking into controversial issues, where the jobs or lives of individuals could be threatened if their identities were revealed. Without “Deep Throat,” the FBI source who spoke to the Washington Post, the Watergate break-in may have never been revealed. Newspapers are home to professional writers, who take into consideration the use of the anonymous source, the motives and when to release the story before arriving at the ultimate decision that is the goal of all news organizations: to inform the public.  

This is not the first time that presidents who clash with the press have had issues with their internal administration. During the famous Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon banned certain members of the press from the White House, created a list of press “enemies” and attacked the license of a television station owned by the Washington Post. On top of his hatred for the press, Nixon’s state of mind was questioned by his own Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, as Nixon approached his resignation. Because of this, Schlesinger ordered the military to get confirmation from him or Secretary Kissinger before obeying any of Nixon’s orders.

The First Amendment is an important one. It protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press that are foundational to our democracy. However, the First Amendment does not always protect anonymous sources. There have been instances where journalists have been jailed after their refusal to reveal sources in criminal cases, like the case of Judith Miller being jailed for failing to reveal her sources to a federal court.

Miller, during the trial of 2005, said: “If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press.”  It was later deemed by The New York Times that several stories Miller had written were inaccurate. The difference, however, is that the anonymous source behind the op-ed article has not committed a crime. Instead, they focus on revealing the inner workings of their own government to the people who deserve to know.

As a student newspaper, we understand the importance of the First Amendment and seek to utilize and protect it in any way we can. The editorial board of The Times is aware of the identity of the author, and they have made the informed decision to keep the article anonymous. While this decision to publicize the anonymous op-ed may be seen as a questionable one, it is a decision that they reserve the right to make.  We need to continue to trust our news publications to effectively and truthfully deliver information.

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