Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Zurawik: Times anonymous op-ed piece looks more like self-serving weasel dancing than journalism to me

It is hard to argue in these journalistic times against 10 million page views in 24 hours.

That’s what the New York Times says it got for its anonymous op-ed piece written by a self-described member of an alleged “resistance inside the Trump administration.”

I get that. I get that almost nothing matters at any media platform as much generating a huge audience in these challenging journalistic times.

But that is all the more reason to make arguments like this even if it is voice-crying-in-the-wilderness time.

One thing I am still sure of about journalism is that it is supposed to clarify not confuse citizens looking for information they can trust. This op-ed massively adds to the cesspool of confusion about the most important story in American life right now: the Trump presidency and truth. You can see in the video here how Trump spun it in his war on the media Thursday night at a rally in Montana.

One of the newsroom lodestars — I’ll talk about the madness associated with that word in a minute — that I have seen the best editors and reporters guided by in times of confusion and conflicting information is the question, “What do we know to be true at this moment in time?”

We, as readers, know almost nothing to be true about that op-ed piece in the Times.

If we want to take the Times’ word for it, the piece was written by a “senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure.”

“Senior official” narrows it down to hundreds — some analysts say more than a thousand — people in the administration.

So, that’s mainly worthless in helping the reader judge, but it does help make what this person has to say seem more important. “Senior official” is a term that has come to mean nothing in the sea of anonymous information (out of Washington in particular) that is now being published every day.

Absent the context that the author’s identity would provide, all we have to work with here is the text. We can all read it differently based on our own histories, but what I see in the text is someone who is looking ahead and planning his or her escape route for the day I have been predicting for 18 months when Trump’s fast train to infamy arrives at its destination in a fiery crash and all the rats on board have to find a new place to live.

I am not sure whether the author’s description of himself or herself and “many of the senior officials” in the administration as patriots “working diligently from within to frustrate” parts of Trump’s agenda and the president’s “worst inclinations” is more questionable for its sense of incredible self-aggrandizement or for its obvious attempt to rationalize taking a paycheck while working for someone described in the author’s own words as amoral.

Others who have worked in previous administrations have already said some version of this in the last 24 hours, but it bears repeating. If you are such a moral person and great defender of the republic, you do not serve in an administration that makes orphans out of innocent children at the Texas border and praises white supremacists in the wake of Nazis marching in Charlottesville.

That’s evil. You cash one paycheck from that administration, and you are part of it.

Yet, the Times granted anonymity to the author so that she or he could say within the the newspaper’s womb of credibity: “Some of his aides have been cast as villains by the media. But they have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing. … It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We recognize what’s happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”

Oh, you brave, self-sacrificing, diligent, tireless patriots going to great lengths night and day, thank you ever so much for saving us from the person you work for and keep in office so he can do even more harm. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

You want to do what’s right for the republic? Have the courage and real sense of sacrifice to publicly denounce Trump and surrender your job. Don’t hide behind the Times’ misguided willingness to grant you anonymity as we witness fresh outrages by the day from the administration you work for.

You know how I read the words of this author? I read them as I would the words of one of the collaborators in France who after World War II insisted they really, secretly had been working all along for the resistance — not the occupying German army.

And given the misery and danger this administration has led this country into, all those who worked for him (at least those “senior officials”) or supported him in any way (like the people at Fox News) shouldn’t be able to avoid being branded forevermore as collaborators.

If that sounds harsh, tell it to the children in detention centers in Texas tonight who have no idea where their parents are thanks to the arrogance, ignorance, incompetence and indifference of “senior officials” in the Trump administration like Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of homeland security.

Those are the kinds of people for whom the Times is providing a platform of rationalization and self-aggrandizement under the cloak of anonymity. We can only hope that the stink on their reputations and souls cannot be washed away with 750 words of weasel dancing on the op-ed page of the Times.

Has this piece reassured the nation, as its author purportedly attempted to do? No, it has merely led to more confusion, chaos and spectacle as analysts track specific words and syntax in the text to guess at the identity of the author.

The word of the day Thursday was lodestar, and cable TV was filled with video clips of Vice President Mike Pence using the word.

But Pence denied being the author. And just after the clips played on one channel, a talking head explained that experienced leakers in Washington sometimes studied the words and speech patterns of others and then used them in their quotes to deflect attention away from themselves and toward others. So, maybe someone was trying to essentially frame Pence.

No wonder Washington and the press are so trusted and loved.

Enjoy the page views, New York Times — and the deeper confusion you have generated. You’re probably up to 20 million by now.

And, by the way, all praise to the Washington Post (and pretty much every other newspaper I know of) for refusing to publish op-ed pieces without the author’s real name attached.

Here’s hoping the Post doesn’t ditch that standard in the wake of the Times’ great metric success. Nothing can shred a journalistic standard faster these days than an epic number of page views.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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