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Paul Janensch Oh, no! Now an anonymous writer?

September 11, 2018

Would I have published that controversial op-ed essay about President Donald Trump’s leadership?

Yes, if the writer’s name appeared above it. Otherwise, no.

The New York Times ran it last week, identifying the author only as “a senior official in the Trump administration.”

As the top editor of three newspapers, I imposed a rule that any staff-written story must not include a quote from an anonymous source.

I certainly would have opposed running an opinion piece by an anonymous writer.

As far as I know, I was the only newspaper editor in the U.S. to ban anonymous sources from staff-written stories. More on that later.

The essay in question appeared on the Times’ op-ed (opposite editorials) page, which is devoted to commentary by staff columnists and outside contributors.

The Times’ editorial and op-ed pages are separate from the news department, as they are at most mid-size and large newspapers.

The headline over the piece reads, “The Quiet Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.”

The writer describes the president as “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.”

According to the writer, there had been “whispers within the Cabinet” of invoking the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, under which a president can be removed for failing to discharge his or her duties.

An editor’s note says the author requested and was granted anonymity so that the person’s job would not be “jeopardized.”

The essay was published the day after news outlets carried stories about the new book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post. Titled “Fear: Trump in the White House,” the book portrays the president as surrounded by advisers who believe he often acts dangerously.

Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly is quoted as telling a group of staffers: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown.” Kelly later denied he said that.

Trump denounced the essay in The Times as “gutless.” He called Woodward’s book “a con on the public.”

When I was an editor back in the 1980s, I decided readers deserved to know who gave us information. So I outlawed unnamed sources in news stories by our reporters.

.Did that weaken our news coverage? Not a bit. In fact, we stepped up our investigative reporting.

At one newspaper, we interviewed men who said that when they were boys Catholic priests sexually abused them. They allowed us to quote them by name because they wanted their stories told.

Woodward does not name people he interviewed. So would my ban against anonymous sources have covered news stories about the book?

No. Because they came from news services, over which I had no control.

The Times’ op-ed page editor should have told the author that the author must be identified or the essay could not be published.

I bet the response would have been, “My job may be jeopardized, but OK.”

You can quote me. By name.

Paul Janensch, of Bridgeport, was a newspaper editor and taught journalism at Quinnipiac University. Email: paul.janensch@quinnipiac.edu.

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