Duty requires courage, not skulking in the darkness of anonymity

Democracy dies in darkness.

The New York Times should have read that bit of wisdom on the masthead of its rival, The Washington Post, before publishing Wednesday an anonymous op-ed from a senior White House official “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of (President Trump’s) agenda and his worst inclinations.”

The unnamed official claimed to be protecting America from Trump’s “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions.”

Trump’s response was predictably devoid of tact or political acumen, thumb-screaming “TREASON?” on Twitter, then tweeting “the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn (their unnamed source) over to government at once!”

That’s not how the First Amendment works, Mr. President, and Robert Mueller soon will be educating us on the question of your treason.

It’s tempting for those of us who’ve criticized the president to latch onto this anonymous op-ed. And, I don’t doubt its content. Even a casual observer can recognize in it what should be blatantly obvious — a president unhinged, unfit and grossly detached from reality and the founding principles of our republic.

But, what end is served by publishing this anonymously?

The Times noted anonymity in an op-ed is “a rare step,” and in its own editorial standards asserts a “distaste for anonymous sourcing,” but said it was necessary in this case because publication could jeopardize the author’s job.

Anony­mous sources are used at times in news articles, when the content has a compelling public interest and a source could be jeopardized by publication. In those cases the paper is responsible for vetting the content, and asserts authenticity under its own name.

Op-ed content, however, is printed almost exclusively under the name of the author, because it does not fall under the more stringent standards of ethics and vetting required of hard news. It is opinion. And the price of admission to print opinion is the courage to stamp your name to it.

The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit watchdog for journalism standards, noted The Times has previously published anonymous op-eds, including an Iranian student who faced reprisals for pro-democracy protests and an immigrant mother who feared deportation and retribution from gangs for speaking out on U.S. family detention practices.

In those cases, sources shared important shards of truth at the risk of their own lives. That is a far cry from a bureaucrat who wants to vent his or her frustrations and fears, but without the risk of losing their job.

By publishing this piece anonymously, The Times violated standards that have rightfully and long established it as one of the pre-eminent news organizations in the world. More importantly, The Times aided the author in shirking his or her duty to protect this nation and uphold its principles, not from the shadows of anonymity but with the courage and forthrightness demanded of a public servant in a free society.

David Frum, in his op-ed in The Atlantic, rightly assessed that the author likely has “enflamed the paranoia of the president and empowered the president’s willfulness,” leading Trump to “grow more defiant, more reckless, more anti-constitutional and more dangerous.”

If the president’s petulant Twitter rage is any indication, I believe Mr. Frum is correct.

Perhaps it was fear of that rage, or just old-fashioned self-interest, that led the anonymous source to seek out The Times instead of either resigning and protesting openly, or forcefully working from within to effect the constitutional provision for removing an unfit president.

“Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president,” the unnamed official wrote. “But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.”

My dear sir or ma’am, exercising a measure written into the Constitution is not a constitutional crisis. The 25th Amendment was ratified for good reason. The cowardice of our elected and appointed leaders in the face of this president’s malignant disregard for the values and institutions of our republic — that absolutely is a constitutional crisis.

On some level, we all understand why the author insisted on anonymity. It is hard to sacrifice a career to do what is right. But, then, duty is seldom easy when the outcome bears any importance. Duty is burdensome, and requires sacrifice. And right now, anonymous writer, this nation needs you to do your duty.

This is not the time for public servants to skulk in the shadows. It is not the time for news organizations to create dark corners where those who should be brave may hide. This is the time for principled men and women, regardless of party, to fight back, in the open, with integrity and the full weight of the Constitution behind them.

Our leaders must find that courage, and we must demand it. The alternative is to watch our republic die in the darkness of apathy and fear.

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