Notes on ‘anonymous’: I’m an oped editor, here’s what media isn’t asking

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

On September 5 The New York Times took the unusual step of publishing an anonymous oped by a writer in the Trump administration. It was deemed of such importance that the paper moved ahead with this unprecedented oped that has now led to media all over the world guessing who the author is. Inside the White House there is also a search for who it might be. Analysts have postulated and major media have investigated, while a long list of senior administration officials have denied writing it. CNN came up with 13 people who might have done it while bookies handle bets.

The main method people have used to track down the writer is to look at words that appeared in the oped, such as “lodestar.” Lahav Harkov and I also used this method in our piece. But there’s one one thing that a lot of media missed. The process behind publishing an oped like this, which shed light on the author.

I’m an oped editor so I have some insight into how opeds get published. The New York Times and its Op-Ed department are much larger, but every system shares some similarities. James Dao, the NYT Op-Ed editor gave a short interview where he said that the information in the oped was important enough to the public interest to merit the “anonymous” byline. “This was a very strongly, clearly written piece by someone who was staking out what we felt was a very principled position that deserved an airing.”

Here are some key details.

  • The oped was submitted “last week”
  • By a senior official in the Trump administration
  • It came through an “intermediary”
  • “It was clear early on that the writer wanted anonymity, but we didn’t grant anything until we read it and we were confident that they were who they said they were.”

There is also a note above the actual oped and a way to ask questions about it.

The oped was written after US Senator John McCain died on August 25 because the oped includes several references to McCain. “We may no longer have Senator McCain.” The writer also mentions McCain’s farewell letter, which appeared on August 27. The oped appeared on September 5. That’s not a lot of time, considering that the ‘Times’ says it received this from someone other than the writer, and that they had to read it and become confident the writer was “who they said they were.”

As an oped editor here’s what I can tell you about the process. Oped editors work a normal shift, they aren’t at the paper 24 hours a day. Even if there are other people at a desk reading and sifting through submissions, decisions about what to publish and when are going to be made when the senior editor is there. That means that the process can’t move too quickly and at an institution like the NYT it means that there have to be several layers of vetting of writers and fact checking and making sure no mistakes enter the piece.

So there is an issue of timing here. The writer would have had to pen this after McCain passed away. The passing of McCain might have inspired the writer. It doesn’t seem reasonable to conclude that the writer added in the McCain details after submitting it initially, although that is possible.

We know that the piece came in without the need for many edits because Dao says it was a strongly written piece and very “clearly written.” That gives more weight to those seeking out the writer by looking at the unique word choice in the piece. If it was a badly written piece but by a senior official, then more editing might have gone into it.

Screen Shot 2018-09-07 at 10.14.35 AM

Oped submissions are edited, sometimes heavily, and often sent back to the author. Sometimes this goes on for several rounds of edits. (illustrative example based on the NYT text)

There is also a question of whether the piece was written after McCain’s passing but before the buzz about Woodward’s book began. In some ways the “anonymous” oped dovetails with the reporting on the book. It even uses the term “off the rails” that appears in reporting about the book.

An oped editor has to work with a variety of writers. The kind of people who write and submit opeds tend to be from a certain type. Reserved people don’t write opeds. Also an oped writer needs to be someone who is familiar with writing. Not every senior official in an administration is a good writer. Some people are downright terrible writers and they have their staff draft letters and things for them. So we need to ask whether this person has written an oped before or is used to composing well written articles on different subjects.

Another key issue is how they were connected to the NYT. The article came through an intermediary. Let’s imagine how this process might have worked. A senior official has a friend or perhaps is an official who has been quoted before on background as a “senior official” and therefore has contacts in major media. The senior official is speaking one day about how angered they are at the administration or how the passing of McCain makes them realize they really need to take a stand and say something. But they don’t want to resign, for whatever reason. Maybe they can’t resign for some reason. Maybe they are a career civil servant. Or they want to stay in place because they believe they are standing between the president and chaos. The oped hints at this.

The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in and around the White House. Some of his aides have been cast as villains by the media. But in private, they have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful.

So the person feels that they should stay on. They don’t want to resign. They can’t have their name on the piece. They can’t use an assumed name (as a dissident in Iran might). So their friend in the media or who has connections at the ‘Times’ says,

“Why don’t you write an oped?”

The senior official replies, “but how could I do that anonymously?”

So now we realize that the friend or intermediary must have known that the NYT would consider an anonymous piece. They could only know that by phoning up or emailing the oped editor, or maybe someone more senior, and broaching this idea. Then they had to go back to the senior official and say “it’s on, we have a go ahead.” Why do we know this probably happened? Because a senior official wouldn’t write a whole oped just to see it not be used. This is someone taking a major risk but also motivated by something deep inside.

We have to understand this motive and the personality of the writer in order to understand this. Some have postulated that one of the senior former military advisors of Trump might have penned an oped. But can anyone really imagine a person who believes in chain of command doing that? And what about the diplomatic side of the White House. They would know that this oped would likely erode further faith in the administration. Yes, the writer mentions foreign policy briefly, but what does the writer mean:

Take foreign policy: In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations.

Is the writer really of such a mind that they think writing an anonymous oped saying they are resisting the president will bring the US more faith abroad? Could this reassure allies? Are allies reassured by anonymous administration officials saying “don’t worry we are working against the bad impulses of this administration”? So it’s less likely it is a foreign policy professional.

Now, let’s go back to the oped process. The oped editor or a more senior person has said they are open to the piece. But time is ticking. McCain’s funeral has taken place. The oped has been sent. Now the staff is also checking if the person is who they say they are. How can they check that? We don’t know. An oped of this nature likely requires the most senior people at the paper to sign off on it. That means it is sent not only to several staff but also to the top floor of the building, and then back to the author. Only several people in this email chain are aware of the author’s identity and of the intermediary. In fact only several may be aware of the intermediary. Others know the identity. But to make this work only a few can know. Because someone will tell their friends. People always leak.

Now this present us with another clue. The person who wrote this couldn’t have relied on their staff to write the oped because too many people would know. That means they had to sit and write this. It took time. They choose their words carefully. They were worried about terms like “deep state” and “resistance.” They wanted to distance themselves from being accused of being either. So they call themselves the “steady state.”

To be clear, ours is not the popular “resistance” of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.

And all this editing and thinking has to take place in just a few days for the piece to be ready by September 4, for the vetting process and for the oped editor and perhaps a few others to sign off on this. And then it goes online and to print. Are there last minute changes and tweaks. Does the author see the final headline? “I am part of the resistance.” Does the official object. Does the intermediary say “well, you are anonymous, so how can you really object now.” What other precautions are taken?

Understanding the process and how this got printed is as important as looking at word choice. We need to understand the motive and the email chain that happened. We need to understand what motivated the person and we need to consider that this is a person who isn’t entirely new to this. They’ve wanted to speak out, they’ve told their friends about it, they probably gave background before to a journalist and they are someone who is connected to the NYT. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean their intermediary isn’t connected to a different newspaper. And they are someone who wants to speak up without being a kind of “martyr” or resigning. They don’t really want to take a stand. And yet they know that they might never get credit for this, that their stand might go into history as “anonymous.”

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