Should the New York Times have published an anonymous op-ed by a “senior” administration official that was sure to send the president on a rampage? Was the author gutless not to sign it? Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post (she’d earlier held a similar position at the Times), has weighed in, saying “yes” to the first question and “possibly” to the second. But Sullivan was witty enough to look past these two obvious debate points into what she called a “quagmire of weirdness: fraught with issues of journalistic ethics and possibly even legal concerns.”
The weird ethical question she savored: A wall divides fact from opinion at the Times, so while the editorial page editor knows the identity of the writer, the newsroom does not and presumably won’t shrink from finding out. But if it does find out, and then publishes the name, the Times will find itself in the strange position of having promised someone confidentiality and then going all out to break that promise. The distinction between the obligations of the editorial page and the obligations of the newsroom will most likely be lost on the exposed senior official, and almost certainly lost on the outraged public denouncing the Times for breaking its word.
And if the official sues the Times for breach of promise, what judge or jury will buy the argument that the Times is not simply one newspaper but two institutions at arm’s length from each other?
If the Times ran that story—which of course it should—wrote Sullivan, “heads would explode.” And if a suit followed, pitting one side of the Times news wall against the other—what then? “We are fully in the weirdness zone,” wrote Sullivan. She imagined a perfect resolution: “As for the knotty journalistic dilemma in reporting on the author, I can only hope—for the sake of the New York Times, of course—that the Washington Post breaks the story.”
Let’s make this journalistic dilemma even knottier. We’ll suppose Sullivan gets her wish and the Post breaks the story—but would it be because the Post commands the loyalty of the one reporter uniquely positioned to surmise who the author is? That, of course, is Bob Woodward, who very likely interviewed the author as a secret source for his new White House exposé, Fear. Recognizing familiar themes and turns of phrase, Woodward could point his Post colleagues investigating the op-ed in the right direction. But would he? And should he? Woodward’s own stock in trade is promising and protecting confidentiality.
The other day I wondered about this on Facebook, and Don Wycliff, retired public editor of the Tribune, replied, “Silence is golden—and obligatory in this instance.” I agree, and so do a couple other Facebook readers who responded. Would Sullivan agree? Does her hoping her paper breaks the story extend to not caring how the Post breaks it?
There are journalists who could ethically reveal the Times essayist, others who could not, and still others who might be able to but would then have a whole lot of explaining to do. Ethics are never as simple as the codes written to spell them out.