Politics & Media
Sep 13, 2018, 06:29AM

Pictures of You (#157)

Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing. It’s silly to take New York Times at face value on “Anonymous.”

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In the increasingly rarefied world of mainstream journalism, there’s little doubt that the biggest event of 2018 is The New York Times’ breathless publication of an op-ed by Anonymous, allegedly a “senior official in the Trump administration,” whose identity we’re told had to be kept secret to preserve his or her job. Taken at face value, which I don’t, the first logical question is why an outspoken critic of Trump would remain in his employ. Unless you’re swayed by the writer’s supposed patriotism—which could be expressed far more effectively by resigning, naming names and citing very specific incidents of Trump’s often moronic behavior—the more cynical view is that the “official” is foolishly sacrificing a huge payday by playing ball with the Times.

(It’s a cynical cycle in media now—when more and more people don’t read articles, but just scan headlines and look at the pictures, which is why above is a snapshot of our family dog Celery—and whether that changes in the near future is up in the air, but I don’t suspect so.)

This is why, upon reading the essay last week, I immediately made a bet with my two sons (they gave me four-to-one odds) that Anonymous is a “senior editorial board member [or columnist] for The New York Times.” I don’t understand why this wasn’t a more common view, as people on Twitter, and to a lesser extent, Facebook, immediately speculated on the identity of the whistle-blower, with, incredibly, Mike Pence the leading suspect. (Which is just dumb, since Pence covets the presidency, and wouldn’t risk exposure as a disloyal MAGA Man to Trump’s base.) Others named various familiar figures, like Dan Coats, Jon Huntsman or Kellyanne Conway, again not questioning the Times’ line.

But why would anyone take the Times—or any other relatively large news organization at its word in today’s climate of newspaper desperation, layoffs, and financial despair? As I’ll explain further down, the op-ed has widely-reviled Times columnist David Brooks’ fingerprints all over it, but first think about what an extraordinary marketing coup this was—and still is—for an institution that at one time, with a straight face, was called “the newspaper of record”?

It’s possible that the Times has finally, after three years of covering Trump as if he were a conventional politician, even while lambasting him, wised up to the fact that the best way to voice their opposition to the man is to play by his rules. Which means: no rules. And if that’s the case—perhaps I’m giving executive editor Dean Baquet, editorial page editor James Bennet and publisher A.G. Sulzberger too much credit—it’s about time. I’ve written on several occasions that the press ought to stop analyzing Trump’s haphazard tweets as if they’re news rather than an unreliable barometer of what his administration is really implementing and planning. And though money is scarce, hence the emphasis on opinion/lecturing instead of real reporting, surely the Times and the Bezos-funded Washington Post still have the resources to produce stories that don’t rely solely on anonymous sources.

When I questioned, on Twitter, whether or not Anonymous was a Times employee, one writer, my Splice Today colleague Noah Berlatsky—who claims the Times op-ed section is a right-wing bulwark—wondered how I could be so naïve to question the veracity of the revenue-in-reverse Times. In a Baby Boomer tic, I replied with a famous Godfather line, “Who’s being naïve now, Noah?”

Today, nothing’s out of bounds, no stunt is too crazy, because the entire industry/Beltway culture is crazy. One of my sons said that if I were right, and it was revealed the Times perpetrated a hoax, the paper would be subject to lawsuits and probably go out of business. Baloney: just as with Judith Miller and Jayson Blair, there would be several top officials at the paper fired, an internal investigation conducted, and then back to the races! The sacrifice of Baquet or Bennet would be a small price to pay. Sulzberger, of course, would be spared.

After the sensationalism of the op-ed continued—said to be most read Times column this year—the paper’s op-ed editor, James Dao, took questions from readers. When asked how the story came about, Dao said, “The writer was introduced to us by an intermediary whom we know and trust.” That’s vague.

I mentioned David Brooks (who called the op-ed a “stupid act” by the alleged official on TV last week) above as a candidate for the in-house writer—although it could’ve been one of many at the paper—because the following snippets read like his columns:

• “President Trump is facing a test to his presidency unlike faced by a modern American leader.” (I guess JFK’s challenge with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 is no longer considered “modern,” but George W. Bush’s “test” after 9/11 certainly is.)

• “Don’t get me wrong. There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.” (That fits in with the Brooks’ neocon background.)

• “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.” (The phrase “adults in the room” is now a standard Beltway writer’s cliché.)

• “Senator John McCain put it best in his farewell letter. All Americans should heed his words and break free from the tribalism trap, with the high aim of uniting through our shared values and love of this great nation.” Brooks, back in 2000, was a charter member of McCain’s Straight Talk Express, and like his old boss William Kristol at The Weekly Standard, has never missed an opportunity to exaggerate the political integrity of the late Arizona senator.

It’s certainly possible that the Times was on the level, and did conspire with a Trump official, no matter how high- or low-ranking. But it’s equally likely that the Times, in a combination of attention-seeking, propaganda and a dash of patriotism, cooked up the prank to cause a ruckus. If that’s so, although I don’t care for the Times’ overall liberal slant, it’s refreshing to see at least one media outlet that’s finally understood how to do battle with this very strange president.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955

  • According to Bob Woodward's new book "Fear," multiple White House officials are sneakily attempting to contain the president's whims. It's not just this one person. It is not incredible to me that this person exists. It's a little strange that they should write an op-ed in the New York Times, but it's potentially explainable. The anonymous writer reveals a bit of their motivation. If they really consider themselves one of the "adults in the room" and they really think they can convince the rest of the nation to shut up and let them handle it, that's a big power win for that individual. They get to determine whatever policies they want just by removing paper from the president's desk or whispering something in his ear. Maybe they're sincerely motivated to prevent nuclear war. Maybe they just want to get their nephew a job. Whatever it is, they have access to do it. Since not everyone wants to be famous and some would prefer to control the White House from the shadows while self-styling as an unsung hero, it makes sense that someone would try to secretly sabotage the parts of the president's agenda that they see as unreasonable. That explains why they do it, but not why they brag about it in the New York Times. The reason for bragging about it (as far as I can tell) is to insert the narrative of "reasonable moderates who worked for the Trump administration and were trying to make things better" into public consciousness. Within the next few years, Republicans may have a problem fielding candidates. If Trump's presidency meets with a disaster of his own making and Republican voters begin to see him as toxic--and especially if he loses his reelection bid in 2020--who is the Republican Party going to run for office in 2024? Some "reasonable moderate who was trying to make things better all along." Having written this op-ed gives this person a point to brag about, later on, should they ever choose to out themselves. It's their own political safety net. That's my take. I can't imagine that the New York Times would ever want to fake an article about anything. That's not how good journalists perceive themselves. There's too much intellectual honesty among journalists as a group to allow a large secret cabal of "let's fake an article" to take root. Someone would "out" the cabal. If there's troubled consciences in the Trump administration over not presidenting correctly, there would sure be troubled consciences at the New York Times over not newspapering correctly. I think the institution of the newspaper would permanently suffer (and that they know this), and that they don't need to take such a risk for page views on a single article (when they publish a thousand articles every week and all the news is already stranger than fiction).

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  • I always liked J. Kelly or Nicki Haley for this one. I don't disagree with your reasoning and agree that The Times would survive any "scandal" probably with lines like Fox uses e.g."that's our opinion side, our hard news is all fair and factual" . Where I disagree is that A) I don't think they (The Times) have the chutzpah to pull this off B) they know if discovered, it would backfire politically and put a future Democratic Senate in jeopardy and may even lead to a Trump re-election. I also think it could be an ally of Trump (Roger Stone type) creating a smoke screen.

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