Can the Age of Fake News Tolerate Anonymous Sources?

News has become one of the more polarizing issues in the world. That which should be true and clear is way too often fake and opaque. What I consider fake, you may not and vice versa. As I’ve often written about before, fake news is not a new phenomenon. Compounding the issue of fake news and the veracity of what may otherwise be in fact real news or truth, are anonymous postings—one of which has made major headlines over the past week.

Many of you will have already surmised that I’m talking about the recent anonymous Op-Ed, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” published in The New York Times last week. A posting that amplified the implications of anonymity, the essay brought complex issues to the fore—namely, in the age of fake news and widespread attacks on the media, should anyone be publishing a piece written by an anonymous author?

In its intro to the essay, The Times seemed to acknowledge the precarious nature of publishing anonymously, writing: “The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay…We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.” And in a rare show of partisan agreement, many on both sides of the aisle were enraged by the publication.

In acknowledgment of the huge response for and against the Op-Ed, The Times welcomed readers to submit questions and/or comments regarding the article. Within a few days, nearly 23,000 readers had submitted responses. I will share a few compelling quotes from among these submissions that underscore just how divisive the editorial was:

“The New York Times’s publication of an anonymous Op-Ed by a senior official in the Trump administration in this hour of crisis for the nation is of the highest public service.”- Felicia Massarsky, Atlantic City, N.J.

“It is not acceptable to engage in personal attacks in an international newspaper while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. If there is that much concern regarding President Trump and his actions, sign your name to the article and step into the spotlight.”- Jonathan Popler, Alpharetta, G.A.

“I admire and applaud the writer of this piece. Many political pundits are calling the writer a coward for not revealing himself or herself. I disagree. In the 1970s, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were able to affect American history by using their anonymous source, Deep Throat. The writer of this piece is our Deep Throat. Keep ’em coming.”- Rhonda Eisenberg, Baldwin, N.Y.

“The Op-Ed is both essential and deplorable.”- Gerald Pomper, Highland Park, N.J.

“Aren’t the floodgates now open to such unsigned attacks becoming the norm, where anyone lacking the courage of his or her convictions, and with an ax to grind, legitimate or not, can do so with the full imprimatur of national media outlets, including The Times?”- Mark Godes, Chelsea, M.A.

This last quote hits the nail on the head. To begin with, a comparison to Watergate is just wrong and sets a precedent based on nothing more than one’s politics. And when we consider the few other instances when The Times has published anonymous essays, my point becomes even more cogent.

Jim Dao, Op-Ed editor of The Times wrote, “Earlier this year, we published an anonymous essay by an asylum seeker whose name we withheld because she was concerned about gang violence against her family in El Salvador. In 2016, we published this Op-Ed by a Syrian refugee in Greece, using her first name only because her family in Syria faced threats. We also published in 2016 an account of the Syrian civil war by a writer in Raqqa using a pen name to protect him from being targeted by the Islamic State.” In the three cases Dao cites, the writer is kept anonymous to protect his or her life.

Losing your job is not akin to losing your life. Seems to me that the standard of journalism that we once had is being denigrated both on the right and the left, and the only way to battle fake news and its unfortunate consequences is to hold ourselves, and journalism itself, to the highest standards possible. Listen:

“In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs forever and ever.”—Oscar Wilde

I have railed against anonymous postings since I began posting on social media. They are dangerous, they are cowardly, and way too often, they promulgate fakeness, hatred, and a litany of other disgraceful behaviors. It’s a complicated issue, but it seems to me that there are straightforward answers because the integrity of journalism must prevail. We need to reestablish a norm of journalistic excellence in this era. What do you think?

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