Patterico's Pontifications

4/1/2007

L.A. Times: We Publish Anonymous Opinion Pieces By Others Only in Extraordinary Circumstances — But We Get to Do It Ourselves Three Times a Day!

Filed under: Dog Trainer — Patterico @ 12:11 pm



In comments to this post, commenter dchamil makes a great point:

We don’t let people write without using their real name — except, of course, every single time we publish an editorial, an opinion piece which is customarily unsigned. One rule for me, a different one for thee.

Indeed.

I wonder how the editors reconcile their position on anonymous op-eds with their tradition of unsigned editorials.

True, the public knows the names of the group of people who write editorials. But we don’t know who wrote any given piece. That’s not accountability. If I had numerous people posting on this site, and we never told you who wrote which post, do you think any of us would feel truly accountable for our words?

I don’t.

To me, this shows that the rule that opinion pieces must be signed is a rule that can and should be discarded in the presence of appropriate countervailing considerations.

In the case of editorials, the countervailing consideration is the paper’s desire to render opinions in a unified voice that speaks for the newspaper as an institution. Arguably, that’s a worthy consideration (though many disagree).

In the case of Jack Dunphy, the countervailing consideration is the need for a police officer to safeguard his job while he speaks necessary truths about his administration. Arguably, that too is a worthy consideration.

I fail to understand why the former countervailing consideration is so critical that it justifies publishing three unsigned opinion pieces every day, whereas the second one is considered so relatively trivial that the officer’s well-written and insightful opinion pieces will be published only under extraordinary circumstances.

19 Responses to “L.A. Times: We Publish Anonymous Opinion Pieces By Others Only in Extraordinary Circumstances — But We Get to Do It Ourselves Three Times a Day!”

  1. Actually, one of the Los Angeles Times’ regular opinion-piece contributors, Jonathan Chait, writes a column for The New Republic under the pen name TRB. Before that, ex-Los Angeles Times opinion editor Michael Kinsley used the same TRB pseudonym at the same magazine.

    Jake Gittes (dab029)

  2. I’m sorry, that comparison is ridiculous. There are three (or however many) people, whose names are known. They all sign off on the pieces. Each is responsible for all, they act collectively as a board. Therefore, all of them (and particularly the editorial page editor) are accountable and responsible. Collective responsibility and accountability is not the same as no responsibility or accountability.

    An anonymous writer (even in cases like Mr. Dunphy, where it has been confirmed that he is a cop) is different. No one can even try to refute anything he says–we can’t possibly prove he’s lying or telling the truth or giving a one-sided account of any of his anecdotes–and (just about) all of Mr. Dunphy’s writing is anecdotal. He throws “facts” out there about things that happen, that can never be confirmed or denied because he would fall back on either his own personal experiences or those of his brother officers, who can never be interviewed because their names will not be revealed either.

    Try this thought exercise–if you wanted to confirm or refute any of the factual statements Dunphy typically makes (about “what the real cops think” or “what really happens in the rank and file”)–how would you do it? Is there any way to prove that his opinions and experiences, even if true, are typical of LA cops?

    It would be different, perhaps, if Mr. Dunphy did not use so many anecdotes/facts/experiential data in his pieces, none of which can be attacked without revealing his name.

    I think reasonable arguments can be made either way, but the comparison to unsigned, collective editorials of a named paper with named board members is ridiculous.

    VR (b77706)

  3. FYI–I was writing my comment as the first one was posted, I did not see it and was responding to the OP, not the comment.

    VR (b77706)

  4. VR: Using your logic, your comment is worthless.

    One way to build confidence, even as an anonymous writer, is to build a track record of credibility. You’re off to a bad start with your assertion, which I believe to be mistaken, that *everybody* on the editorial staff signs off on these editorials. Instead, I think it’s done by a vote.

    I could be wrong — but (unlike Dunphy, who has met me and people at the LAT) I have no reason to trust someone going by the name “VR.”

    Patterico (606a80)

  5. Now come on–there’s a difference between “worthless” and having reasons to question it.

    Your blog allows quasi-anonymous comments (you do get our emails, which is fine). So I left one. The LA Times has (apparently) decided to scale down/disfavor anonymous (or quasi-anonymous, since the LA Times knows who Dunphy is) op-ed pieces. I never said they were worthless, I said that the collective responsibility and accountability of an editorial board with known members and a known boss is more than that of an anonymous writer, and I implied that there were reasons to question assertions by anonymous writers.

    My post contained no assertions, except that “they all sign off on it.” Whether or not that’s true (I have no knowledge of LA Times policy, only some knowledge of the policy at other newspapers, and I am no expert) is not central to my post. If I’m on an editorial board, I have implicitly agreed to tie my name to that paper’s positions and be accountable for them.

    Dunphy’s pieces are a lot more like the use of “an anonymous high-placed administration source” by many reporters, which is justly questioned. But, at most papers, they won’t print anything from those kind of sources without some confirmation. There’s a reason for that.

    VR (b77706)

  6. No editorial writer agrees to be personally accountable for a statement in an editorial that they voted against. Kerry voters (some of them, anyway) agreed to live with the result of the presidential election, even if they didn’t win. That doesn’t make them personally accountable for the election of George W. Bush.

    Nor is an editorial writer likely to be fired for what they wrote in an editorial that was approved by a majority vote.

    Dunphy could be fired or disciplined for what he writes — and it’s not impossible that he could be outed.

    So I’m not so sure that editorial writers are more personally accountable for what they write.

    Patterico (117eaa)

  7. The fact that Dunphy could be fired for what he wrote makes his decision (to only write anonymously, or more precisely pseudonymously) understandable. It does not render his pieces mroe worthy of belief in and of themselves.

    With an editorial, we know it came from this named group of people with a particular named boss. Gail Sheehy, when she was editorial page editor at NY Times, was (justly) held accountable for the NY Times editorials. That would be fair, even if it was a piece that Ms. Sheehy voted against. But no one can be held accountable for an anonymous piece.

    As a reader, it is difficult to know just how much to credit anonymous pieces. Hypothetical–an anonymous piece by a former US Attorney General. All you know as a reader is that it has been confirmed by the paper that at one point in the writer’s life, s/he was the US Attorney General. S/he says something controversial, backing it up with anecdotes from their service as USAG. I would feel very differently about such assertions from, say, Ramsey Clark, than I would from Janet Reno, than I would from Ed Meese, than I would from John Ashcroft. If I knew which of the AG’s had written it, that would affect my reaction, and I would know how much I should credit what they say.

    You can’t do that with a piece by “a former US Attorney General” which makes the piece less valuable.

    The LA Times only has so many inches of op-ed space. That space is at a premium–I am sure they get far more submissions than what they have room to print (notwithstanding your hilarious sewer-pipe story expose). They have to axe most of their submissions–I have no idea what percentage. They have decided that anonymous pieces have less value for their readers, and I don’t think that is an irrational decision.

    If there was any evidence that they were applying this criteria in some dishonest manner, that would be a different story. I am not aware of any evidence of that.

    VR (b77706)

  8. I will say that an anonymous Dunphy piece has more value than a paid piece of sewer-pipe hackery, though.

    I would love to know what (if anything) was turned down to make room for that.

    VR (b77706)

  9. “They have decided that anonymous pieces have less value for their readers, and I don’t think that is an irrational decision.”

    1) I didn’t say it was irrational. I disagree with it.

    2) They have made that decision — but they don’t apply it to their own editorials. That’s all I’m saying.

    Patterico (22cd25)

  10. They do apply it to their own editorials. If they didn’t, they would not give the names of the board and it’s editor. They are collectively responsible.

    VR (b77706)

  11. VR: I don’t know if they still do it, but for a while, The Times allowed editorial writers to write a dissenting opinion in cases where they disagreed with the editorial stance. (This is part of how I know that, your initial assertion notwithstanding, all editors need not sign off on an editorial.) In those cases, do you think the dissenter would consider himself or herself responsible or accountable for the editorial from which he or she dissented?

    You wanna put money on that?

    Same question, only this time the dissenter voted against the editorial board’s stance — but has already burned his or her once-a-year privilege to dissent.

    Patterico (5fb967)

  12. since its considered the opinion of the editorial page, its not really anonymous. Its like how when an organization issues a press release. Its not anonymous just because its unsigned.

    marc (bfe3d2)

  13. Interesting practice that you mentioned. I do not live in LA or read the LA Times, so this is news to me.

    But I think it is a side issue. As a reader, I know who is responsible for Times editorials–the editorial board, and its editor. Whether or not individuals on that board dissent is irrelevant. I know something about them, and I know the institution they represent (the LA Times).

    If you were given two pieces, one from “some unidentified editorial board” and one from the LA Times editorial board, you would have a different reaction to each. You know the LA Times, you know its biases, you are obviously familiar with them. You could not possibly be familiar with the anonymous paper, since even if it was one that you were familiar with, you would have no way of knowing that, or if some other paper is similar.

    In Dunphy’s case in particular, he uses very many anecdotes and personal observations. Sometimes he claims to speak for the whole rank-and-file (in general), other times he says his opinion is just his own. But lets say he were writing about one of the many LAPD scandals in recent years (and he has written much on them). Is he acquainted with anyone involved on any side of the scandal? Have any similar accusations been made against him? Does he have some sort of personal experience that may shade his opinion? (of course he does–but what kind?)

    If there was a piece written about the way confidential documents are treated, and its byline was just “an anonymous former government official”–wouldn’t you want to know that the author was in fact Sandy Berger?

    VR (b77706)

  14. Patterico, I think that, however the details may vary from paper to paper, VR is correct. Those editorials are supposed to be the consensus of the editorial board, and therefore theoretically all the members of the board can be considered responsible for it. It’s rather like a per curiam opinion in legal appeals.

    Besides, the point of concern is not whether LAT has unsigned opinion pieces on its editorial pages–which, after all, are labelled as opinion pieces. The point of concern is that LAT has opinion pieces which are signed by individual reporters but which are labelled as news articles

    kishnevi (a117ab)

  15. An individual op-ed writer (named or pseudonymed) is presumably writing for his or herself. An editorial writer is writing on behalf of a Board, which might have concerns the individual writer does not (including the concept of stare decisis — what the Board has traditionally written on the subject). Editorials are edited much differently than op-eds, for precisely that reason (and others).

    So if my name was on an editorial that I wrote the first draft of, if anything, it might be misleading, since it might include sentiments, sentences and even sections that I would never have written under my own power.

    So the comparison to Dunphy, while raising interesting questions, isn’t an exact fit.

    Matt Welch (c329c3)

  16. That “we know him, we trust him, we publish him” is not good enough does say something about the newspaper’s own inherent credibility though.

    nk (37b8ef)

  17. Matt,

    I don’t necessarily see the comparison as an “exact fit,” as I thought I made clear in the post. My point was made at a high level of generality, to argue that countervailing considerations can argue against the general rule that opinion pieces should be signed.

    In comments, in response to VR, the argument has followed a somewhat different path, addressing the issue of what extent writers face personal accountability for their writings on the editorial side vs. the op-ed side.

    I think you support my position on that question to some extent when you say:

    An individual op-ed writer (named or pseudonymed) is presumably writing for his or herself.

    I think that supports my point about op-ed writers having great personal accountability for what they write — unlike editorial writers, who are speaking for a group.

    Maybe you can clarify one thing for us: must every editor on the editorial board approve of an editorial for it to go into print? It’s my understanding that the answer is no: it’s done by vote, and an editor might dissent. Can you tell me whether I’m right?

    Patterico (04465c)

  18. Patterico: “…In the case of Jack Dunphy, the countervailing consideration is the need for a police officer to safeguard his job while he speaks necessary truths about his administration. Arguably, that too is a worthy consideration.”

    He has a very good advocate in Patterico who has argued “Dunphy” is not a twister and the Times re anonymity has shakier and inconsistent practices. I accept that. Nonetheless here is “Dunphy”:

    “Pat,

    I wrote to Nick Goldberg proposing to do a piece about the sham that is the LAPD’s new anti-gang efforts, which to date amount to more meetings, more paperwork, more bureaucracy, and very little else.

    Denied. He expressed an interest in running my stuff from time to time, but not right now.

    Oh well.

    Jack”

    The force of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution is not to be found solely in their words, but in each signature, representing each man’s vow to establish, preserve and protect liberty and her blessings.

    Those men, most with wives and children; most far more wealthy, far more comfortable than “Jack Dunphy” will ever be, were afraid too. They knew what fate the king had in store for each one of them. Hanging was only the beginning of it. Still they signed.

    The men I pointed out, Richardson, Petrosino, Picquart et al, also met, and mastered severe ethical dilemmas. Each thought that honor and forthrightness (not someone in the dark tacking a broadside to a tree and running away) to vindicate truth and justice were more important than a job. With them there was no dichotomy of earning a living v leading a life of unbreached integrity.

    Arguably and regrettably, “Jack Dunphy” does not possess the courage his convictions require, worse, that such a state contents him.

    Ted Monroe (a3c7a7)

  19. must every editor on the editorial board approve of an editorial for it to go into print? It’s my understanding that the answer is no: it’s done by vote, and an editor might dissent. Can you tell me whether I’m right?

    It’s a little less rules-based than all that. We are a talking shop with mostly a majority-rules approach (where the three editors — now two — also vote), but we’re also not a full democracy: The editor(s) sets the tone, makes the final call, occasionally orders up a piece that hasn’t been yakked about, and does the editing. Any of the three editors (now two) might edit all three, or maybe none, of the editorials on a given day; they don’t necessarily “sign off” on each one.

    We have published “dissents” — one a year — but not for editors … even though I was encouraged to write one regarding NATO expansion, of which I’ve strenuously disagreed with the LAT line for well over a decade now. The normal course of political debate and push-and-pull is such that it’s totally natural there will be editorials every week with entire positions, or just elements, that an editor or other Board member wouldn’t exactly agree with. But hopefully we’re applying the same principles throughout, respecting our published history, and adding value to the discussion.

    Matt Welch (8343ab)


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