This is from way out in the boondocks here in Dallas, Texas, so far from the nation’s capital we have to take its existence on faith, but we’ve got feelings, too, you know. In fact I feel a very strong need to tell somebody how I’m feeling about the anonymous op-ed piece in The New York Times saying the president is nuts but don’t worry because people in the White House are distracting him.
Not good. And may I add that while I was reading this thing the first time, two words popped immediately into my mind? Nuclear. Codes.
Sorry. I’m sure it’s a naïve view. But I’m also sure that this is the man with the codes. And they’re distracting him? Distracting him with what?
Oh my God, if women are involved, one shudders to think. What is the one thing that would “grab” his attention first? That is one of several pictures I just don’t want in my mind.
Another thing. I found the tone of the op-ed piece very unsettling, given the gravity of the matter. The anonymous writer says: “I would know. I am one of them.” Those words are set off for effect in their own stark paragraph.
To me, that has a weird sci-fi breathless tone. “I know these things, because I, too, have been abducted.”
It’s very loony. Very. The whole thing. The tone. The picture. Not even mentioning the missing two words. Sorry. I know this is from the boondocks, and I just sound like some guy who’s not used to thinking of the nuclear codes being in the hands of a loon. But that’s exactly what I am. Exactly.
“So we will do what we can,” the writer says, “to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.”
Oh, damn, what does that even mean? It sounds like one of those smart-aleck swimming-with-the-fishes things. What is the writer talking about, “one way or the other?”
That’s not a good phrase. I’m serious. Where I live, we just don’t think of presidencies coming to an end “one way or the other.” One way only, please. No other.
OK, I am taking some breaths here. I want to calm down, so that we can discuss another aspect of this. The New York Times.
I have been a local newspaper person for a half century, here and in Detroit. It’s not a glorious career, but I think I have learned the basics, especially where anonymous sources are concerned.
I don’t know how this looks in Washington, but from this vantage point the basic underlying assumption is that an American reader reads the newspaper first by assuming the newspaper is lying to him. Then he waits for the paper to prove him wrong.
I have seen a lot of stuff lately saying that this skepticism about the media is Trump’s fault. As far as I know, skepticism and “an extreme love of independence” have been core elements of the American character at least since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about us in the early 19th century.
The better editors for whom I have worked in my half-century usually begin the conversation about unnamed sources with something in the order of: “The readers already think we make this stuff up. Now you want me to pass on a story with a key quote from somebody you’re not going to name. Sell me.”
I can sell an editor on an anonymous source who is providing an important quote if certain things are clear from the context. I went to the source. She didn’t come to me.
I said, “I need you to spill your guts.”
She said, “If I do that, they’ll kill me.”
I said, “We’ll make it anonymous, and nobody will ever find out.”
I still have to convince my editor that the anonymous source is giving us important information we can’t get anywhere else. What she has to say is a key to understanding what’s going on.
The basic principle there is what we call “advancing the story.” The anonymous quote will significantly advance what our readers will be able to understand about this situation, so it’s worth the tax we will pay for it in terms of reader skepticism.
But even more important, the skeptical reader will be able to deduce this entire algorithm at least semi-consciously from the context of the story. The grant of anonymity will make sense to the reader.
Almost none of that pertains to your average op-ed piece. Most op-ed pieces are essays about what I did on my summer vacation. Why would that have to be anonymous, unless you killed somebody?
Sure, you could have a first-person account by an asylum-seeker talking about what it’s like for him to live in secrecy and fear waiting for ICE to find him. But what’s the secrecy and fear factor in The New York Times op-ed by the White House person?
I have heard some people on TV speculating that the writer could be afraid of Trump’s volatile temper. Give me a break. His volatile temper and then what? I thought the whole point was that they could tame him down with a cheeseburger.
A quick text: “CODE ORANGE! We need the young women to walk through the Oval Office again.”
The anonymous op-ed piece published by the Times wouldn’t meet any of those requirements if it were not for one element. The only thing in it that sort of advances the Trump story is the presence in the White House of a clandestine cabal of people who work for Trump but are not loyal to him. I love stories like that, but there are problems with this one.
The anonymous op-ed does not sound like something The New York Times itself actively sought — like something the paper sniffed out and then proved up, or they would report it that way. And I just don’t believe that the Times, a newspaper for which I have enormous respect, goes to people and says, “Hey, write us a good op-ed piece about your boss, and we’ll let you do it anonymously.” Something about the math there doesn’t add up.
This sounds, reads and feels like something someone brought to the Times. And, not to whine and show you the lash marks on my back or anything, but I can tell you from experience how most editors react when a staffer comes in with something that someone outside the paper brought to the paper along with a demand for anonymity.
“So, you wrote this yourself, right?”
“You haven’t accepted anything of value from these people yet, have you?”
“What is this supposed to be, an IQ test?”
People don’t come in with something like that on an FYI basis. They have an agenda. They want to inject something into the news cycle — some story, some scenario, some argument — for a reason. They want to make something happen and not get blamed, or they want to establish a record.
That sounds cynical. I guess it is. But there’s an easy reality test. Just put the shoe on your own foot. Ask yourself, “Why would I write an op-ed piece and take it to the paper and ask them to publish it if my name could not be associated with it?” You wouldn’t, unless you were up to something.
The New York Times anonymous op-ed piece doesn’t do us any good, does it? It just scares the willies out of me. Too much information. Figure it out yourselves, people. And what about the two words?
Who gets something out of it? What kind of record would they be trying to establish with it? The mind runs rampant. What if Hermann Göring had had access to an iPhone and Facebook? In the last hours of the Third Reich, would there have been a bathroom video post with Göring saying, “Vee vass joost trying to distract him?”
The voice in the op-ed piece comes to us from high atop Mount Agenda, the place where all agendas eventually meet, the White House. Given all the anomalies in the piece, is it absolutely paranoid to wonder if the author or authors might have some agenda that is less than fully disclosed?
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And listen, there is always another possible explanation for the whole thing. It happens to be the one I’m hoping for, not because I wish the Times any harm.
But did you read about this guy, Randy Credico, a comedian and political trickster who’s on the list of people Robert Mueller intends to question? His specialty is calling people up and spoofing them by doing uncannily persuasive voice impressions of important personages.
Wouldn’t it be great if that’s all this was? The Times got spoofed? No, I said already I love the Times and wish it no harm, usually. But I’m still stuck on those two words, and I might be willing to sacrifice even the Times if it means we’re not all about to go up in a mushroom cloud. I like the headline, “New York Times De-Pantsed” a lot better than “Bend Over and Kiss Yourself Goodbye.”
I asked my editor, Patrick Williams, why The New York Times would even publish such a thing. He said, “Because they have it?” Oh, well, right. There is that.