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Politics & Government

Former 'New York Times' Executive Editor Jill Abramson On Anonymous Op-Ed


The use of anonymous sources is always a controversy in the news business. Why won't a source go on the record? What's their agenda? Are they using us to settle a score? So when The New York Times published an op-ed this week called "I Am Part Of The Resistance Inside The Trump Administration" by a senior official who was identified only as anonymous, the president and named senior officials denounced it as fake news. I'm joined now by Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times. Miss Abramson, thanks so much for being with us.

JILL ABRAMSON: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And let's understand, first off, someone in your former position, the editor of The New York Times, doesn't make the decision. It's the opinion page editor, right?

ABRAMSON: That's exactly right, Scott. There's a very strict line inside The New York Times between the news side of the paper and opinion.

SIMON: So should The Times have just run a news story reporting that a high-ranking government official tried to plant an op-ed with them - place an op-ed - in which they say they're working around the president because they don't trust his mental fitness for office?

ABRAMSON: I don't - I don't think so. I think the publication of the anonymous editorial was entirely appropriate and more striking, more newsworthy because it was in the own words of the author, even though he or she did not want to put their name to it. Its newsworthiness is precisely in the content of what the author wanted to convey to the public. And I don't think just doing a news story would have been as powerful or as newsworthy really. We've heard other sources, including - you had an interesting conversation earlier in the program about - Bob Woodward's book has sources saying similar things. But there is something about hearing from this author, hearing the words he or she chose, how impetuous and impulsive and dangerous this president is - that made it all the more bracing and really worrisome to read, I think.

SIMON: Let's listen to what the president said to a group of sheriffs at the White House.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Somebody in what I call the failing New Times that's talking about he's part of the resistance within the Trump administration...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This person works for the administration...

TRUMP: ...This is what we have to deal with and, you know, the dishonest media - 'cause you people deal with it as well as I do, but it's really a disgrace.

SIMON: So does publishing the op-ed by someone who names him or herself anonymous play into the president's version of events that the press is out to get him?

ABRAMSON: Again, I don't think so. I don't think the anonymity makes it any more - I mean, I despise the term fake news, especially in the way that the president uses it as a weapon against credible news organizations. But I don't think the terms anonymity undermines the credibility of the message. Essentially, anonymous in this case is like many whistleblowers who come forward, they feel they have compelling information in the public interest that readers need to know, and they're worried about retribution. And in news articles, those terms are accepted.

SIMON: But let me - just in the half-minute we have left - whistleblowers are frequently somewhere in the thicket of bureaucracy. This is a self-described high-ranking official.

ABRAMSON: True, true.

SIMON: They would have a lot of employment options. I mean, OK, they might lose their job - so? - they'll be on this show tomorrow if they do.

ABRAMSON: It's true. I see your point, and it's a good one, but I also think if this person is in a high-ranking position, they portray themselves as functioning almost like a break system, trying to stop the worst impulses of this president. And if they resign to get another position, that break, that safeguard to the public would no longer be there.

SIMON: Jill Abramson, former executive editor at The New York Times, thanks so much for being with us.

ABRAMSON: Thanks so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.