OPINION: Even 2000 Years Ago, People Knew Better About Anonymous Op-Eds

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Helen Krieble Founder and President, Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.
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In my early studies of Latin, I remember reading the famous story about Pliny the Younger, who was appointed Roman Governor of an area that is now part of Turkey. When he took office in the year 111 A.D., he had to deal with the ongoing persecution of early Christians, an issue to which he had never been exposed.

He wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan asking for guidance. Pliny reported that because of the trials’ publicity, accusations had spread and rumors were rampant about who was and was not a Christian. “An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons,” he wrote, asking what to do with it.

Trajan’s response has been quoted for nearly 2000 years: “Anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”

Is the spirit of our American age so different? Or have we devolved back to a system of persecution based on anonymous rumors? Observers of today’s news might think so, especially watching the flap over publication by the nation’s largest newspaper, The New York Times, of an anonymous column supposedly written by a “senior administration official.”

The column claims that there is a growing “resistance” movement among Trump insiders, and makes several accusations about the president’s personality and leadership style.

Why would the author want to remain unknown? One popular website that helps people write anonymous letters says it can “help you find your voice and express yourself without fear of the repercussions associated with confronting the person yourself.” But how can that be squared with one of America’s founding principles, enshrined in the Bill of Rights — the right of accused persons to confront and question their accusers?

Anonymous letters cannot be used as evidence in court, because their source[s] cannot be verified by cross-examination. Just as unsigned charges cannot be admitted in court, so they should also not be admissible in the court of public opinion.

There is nothing particularly new or shocking about this writer’s accusations, all of which we hear on a daily basis from the president’s critics. What is shocking, however, is the low ethical standards of which this incident is symptomatic. Someone who apparently serves at the pleasure of the president, and therefore owes his/her livelihood to the sovereign American people for whom that president works, thinks his views are more important, valid, and correct. We are expected to take his word for that, without knowing where he got his information.

Remembering the 6th Amendment right of accused persons to question accusers, there is one key question diligent newspaper readers would ask the anonymous columnist: “How do you know?”

Without knowing who the writer is, what meetings he may have attended, what job he holds, who he reports to, or what documents he has access to, how can “we the people” possibly judge the veracity of his allegations?  

What we do know is that whoever he is, he was not elected and represents nobody. Ours is a republic in which power resides in the people themselves, and policy is made by the people we elect. We authorize presidents to appoint various officials to help them faithfully execute the laws, but the president represents the will of the people. He governs by the consent of the governed. No subordinate official is authorized to judge his effectiveness or fitness for office — that power belongs only to “we the people.”

Americans may be forgetting that their founding principles included ethics, morality, and virtue. George Washington wrote that virtue was the very basis of self-government, “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people,” he said. Benjamin Franklin was even more direct: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

Our system’s very foundation is the idea that ordinary people can govern themselves. That requires that be we well informed, so we can properly judge between right and wrong. Anonymous letters strike at the very heart of that fundamental truth.

In Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Possibility of Evil,” an old woman thinks she is helping rid her small town of evil by constantly writing anonymous letters. But it turns out that the letters, whose damaging accusations often prove false, cause irreversible turmoil. It is thus revealed that the anonymous writer herself is the real evil.

Reactions to the New York Times piece have been sadly predictable. Other newspapers made hay with a story that the Trump administration is imploding. TV news shows paint a picture of inside squabbling and dissent. Administration allies counter by demanding the Times disclose the author’s name, and many are calling for the resignation or firing of the culprit. Some even suggest that such anonymous columns are a threat to national security. They all miss the mark.

The important point about an anonymous editorial has less to do with the author, and more to do with our own reactions. We shouldn’t care who wrote it; we should ignore it. The fact that a particular newspaper decided to publish it speaks volumes about the editor’s ethics, but not about ours. We should simply react as Trajan did, insisting that no prosecution — legal or political — should be based on anything anonymous. It is “out of keeping with the spirit of our age.” Or it should be.

Helen Krieble is founder and president of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.