Abernathy: Anonymous commentary is internet’s big drawback

Gary Abernathy

The many benefits of the internet age are significantly offset by its biggest drawback: the acceptance of anonymity, including on the digital platforms of our most respected news outlets.

Granted, I’m old. I started out when the only way readers could respond to newspaper articles or commentaries was with a letter to the editor, which mandated that writers provide a name, address and phone number so we could verify their identities.

Today, many stories and opinion pieces are almost immediately followed online by hundreds or thousands of comments from readers using sobriquets that conceal who they really are. Cable-news shows highlight tweets from viewers using silly handles. The once inviolate insistence on accountability has been obliterated. Newspapers still run letters, but in the digital age, the practice seems like a nod to a bygone era.

It is in this atmosphere that the vaunted New York Times found it defensible to publish the already famous commentary by an anonymous “senior official in the Trump administration” whose identity was being protected because his or her “job would be jeopardized” otherwise.

It is discouraging that a major media outlet would excuse cowardice – that is the right word – under the cloak of anonymity. Because his or her job would be jeopardized? Please. Every public official, every spokesperson, every television or radio commentator, and every newspaper columnist risks their jobs every time they utter an opinion. The risk of retribution – lawsuits, advertiser boycotts, ridicule, harm to reputation – is what keeps, and has always kept, expressed opinion somewhere between the lines of responsibility.

Had Roseanne Barr tweeted about Valerie Jarrett under a pseudonym, she would be ready to launch the second season of her rebooted television show rather than sitting on the sidelineswhile the rest of the cast trudges on. Conversely, stirring quotes of patriotism mean nothing without their source. Suppose President John F. Kennedy had said, “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty – but don’t quote me on that.” The allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh committed sexual assault while in high school didn’t gain much traction until the woman making the claim agreed to go on the record. Anonymity carries little credibility.

When I wrote columns on this subject for various local newspapers over the years, someone without fail would defend anonymity using the example of Benjamin Franklin, who wrote letters to the New-England Courant under the pseudonym of “Silence Dogood.” If Franklin did it, it’s justifiable, they argued. But Franklin resorted to the tactic only after his brother, the publisher, refused to print the missives under his little brother’s real name.

Once the digital age arrived, the newspaper companies for which I worked, hungry for new revenue, adopted the same practice as others. I was often asked by local readers why we permitted anonymous posts, and could offer only the weakest of excuses – because everyone else does it. If everyone jumped off a cliff … ?

President Donald Trump is often blamed for the lowering of public discourse in our country, but his contributions pale in comparison to the proliferation of the unaccountable, irresponsible and often vile comments that appear on the digital platforms of so many of our most respected news outlets.

I am not opposed to the promise of anonymity in the cause of pursuing important truths. The use of anonymous sources to provide important information necessary to advance the public’s understanding of events is often crucial. But this practice was once rare and usually involved long discussions among top editors; today, it’s grossly abused for such trivial nonsense as telling us what mood the president was in on Tuesday.

Such was the case with the piece published by the Times, whose author advanced no new information but did manage to show an amazing lack of concern for fellow administration officials, all of whom were put under a cloud of suspicion and forced into the unenviable position of having to deny authorship. Thanks for nothing.

At least one generation of Americans has grown up knowing nothing but a world in which it is deemed acceptable to think up a fake name, log on to the World Wide Web and begin hurling insults. It is indefensible, as was the Times’s decision to jump on the bandwagon in an even bigger display of recklessness.

“We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers,” wrote Times editors. No, there was another way, a way that involved getting someone on the record – someone accountable and identifiable, even at the risk of his or her job. If something is truly worth saying, it is worth the risk that accompanies saying it.

One whole generation may be lost, but the next deserves to grow up understanding why accountability matters.

Special to the Washington Post. © 2018, The Washington Post.

Comments are closed.