But the NYT's newest Public Editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, may have a harder time taking the high road on this issue -- having allowed an anonymous source to attack the NYT in today's column.
Addressing the controversy created by the NYT's publication of Wikileaks-obtained Iraq War documents last week, Brisbane today used the anonymous source to question the NYT's publication of reports that could aid enemy military strategy. He wrote:
To address the risk to troops and informants, The Times took pains to remove names and other information from the documents it published. Nevertheless, a retired Army general, who asked for anonymity to avoid bringing controversy to the civilian organization he now serves, said the field reports enable Al Qaeda and the Taliban to learn much about the operational practices and mind-set of the coalition’s fighting forces.
“Analysis is not nearly as damaging as reports,” he said, drawing a distinction between the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks material. Field reports like these make it possible “to get into the mind of the enemy. Anytime you do that you gain a tremendous advantage.”
In 2005, NYT executive editor Bill Keller attacked this sort of flimsy use and identification of anonymous sources directly when he declared:
...when anonymity is unavoidable editors must press for adequate disclosure — how the sources know what they know, what motivated them to share the information, and why they are entitled to anonymity. (Note: Not why they ASK for anonymity, but why we feel they are entitled to it.)
Brisbane's lazy use of an anonymous source represented just one weakness in a column riddled with them -- a wimpy, scattershot analysis of a serious controversy that produced widespread and serious attacks on the NYT.
We emailed Okrent, who as the NYT's first Public Editor was a vehement critic of the paper's use of anonymous sources -- "There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source," he once wrote -- to see what he thought of today's use of an anonymous source by Brisbane.
"I appreciate the importance of what you're doing," Okrent replied to The NYTPicker via email, "but I've also sworn never to second-guess any of my successors, at least not publicly. I hope you'll understand."
Today's column marked the latest misfire for Brisbane, who has -- in his brief tenure -- already allowed his Public Editor columns to be largely dominated by the NYT's defense and explanation of its decisions, rather than his detailed questioning of them. While his job is to be the "reader's representative," his columns often concern themselves largely with the NYT's side of the story.
Sometimes, as he did today, Brisbane ends his columns with a tidy and unexplained defense of his employer, as though his job were merely to perform as a judge issuing a ruling:
Why? When? How? Brisbane doesn't bother to say.
Astonishingly, Brisbane virtually ignored what many feel was the most pressing problem in the NYT's handling of the Wikileaks disclosures: last Sunday's page-one takedown of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya. Frequent NYT critic Glenn Greenwald of Salon labelled that story a Nixonian "smear job" -- one that he said echoed the way the Nixon administration orchestrated attacks on Daniel Ellsberg at the time of the Pentagon Papers.
Brisbane alludes to the Burns-Somaiya story in his lede -- addressing the "stark duality" of reporting on documents dumped by an "increasingly sketchy" source -- but then doesn't return to it until the very end of his column. He then obliquely states:
The Times, in my opinion, did take a reputational risk in doing business with WikiLeaks, though it has inoculated itself somewhat by reporting independently on the organization.
How did the NYT inoculate itself? Greenwald and others have charged that the NYT, in fact, hypocritically undercut itself by presenting the Wikileaks-proferred documents in detail while at the same time attacking their source. It might have been valuable for Brisbane to address those arguments directly, rather than by casually defending the NYT with no backup for his beliefs.
As an aside: we liked the Burns-Somaiya piece. It struck us as a legitimate and insightful inquiry into Assange's methods and behavior. But we don't think the NYT intended to "inoculate" itself with the story; it makes no sense that such a story could have done anything to protect the NYT, had its stories resulted in government action against the paper.
Brisbane also betrayed some lack of awareness of NYT history in his reporting. He wrongly identified A.M. Rosenthal as the NYT's "executive editor" during the Pentagon Papers crisis; Rosenthal was managing editor at the time. The executive editor position wasn't created for another several years.
Brisbane also failed to mention that Bill Kovach, who he quoted questioning the Wikileaks disclosures, was a NYT reporter and editor for 18 years who played a direct role in the NYT's publication of the Pentagon Papers. As Boston bureau chief at the time, Kovach reportedly got the first phone call from reporter Neil Sheehan about the historic papers in Daniel Ellsberg's possession.