Bob Woodward, who practically invented the anonymous source (see: Throat, Deep) had perhaps the best criticism of the anonymous op-ed. Since he’s Bob Woodward, and we’re all tired of the topic, let’s make this the last word.
Speaking on the New York Times’s excellent podcast “The Daily,” * Woodward said his biggest problem with the anonymous op-ed was that it was almost wholly lacking in specifics. Dig, for example, this line from it: “Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”
“What meetings? When? With who present?” Woodward asked. “What decisions? Walked back how?” A reporter of Woodward’s caliber I imagine, would have made that graph read something like: Meetings, such as the one on March 9 about the alarming growth of the Chinese Navy, veer off topic. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis and members of the National Security Council looked on, the President veered from the South China Sea into the unfairness of the designated-hitter rule.”
Woodward is right, of course, and I’m ashamed I didn’t pick up on the op-ed’s vacuity when I first read it. I suspect that I was so surprised to find an anonymous op-ed on the Times’s op-page that I wasn’t expected anything of substance therein.
This is another reason op-ed page editor James Bennet should have handed this off to the newsroom; a good reporter never would have let a source be so vague, and The Times has very good reporters. Unfortunately, the reporter probably would have let this person speak “off the record,” which, I explain here, is neither wise nor necessary.
True, this person likely would have been fired for speaking openly. But dude, you and your buddies are committing mutiny, running a quiet coup d’état in the West Wing because you claim to love our democracy so much. It should hardly be necessary to point out that many, many Americans have sacrificed a lot more than cushy jobs for love of the Republic. I write about a few here, here, and here. I hope that had the Times assigned this piece to a reporter, the reporter would have said just this to the source: “C’mon. Man up. You claim the Republic is at stake. You can make a sacrifice. And you have a pretty good resumé. You’ll get another job.”
Unlikely, though. Journalists, like the rest of us, have come to consider losing a soft and influential job — like White House Chief of Staff, say, or Secretary of Defense– as the worst thing that can happen to a person, and a risk that no sane person would take. Pity. We can expect more from our public servants, especially ones who wear, or have worn, the uniform.
*If you haven’t discovered The Daily, I highly recommend it. Every weekday, its host interviews a Times reporter covering a particular story. It’s informal, engaging, and full of information that didn’t make the paper.