The Case for Journalistic Anonymity

PETER A. JAY

May 23, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--In the up-front Age of Personality it's probably wasted breath, but herewith a few cautious words in behalf of a little more journalistic anonymity.

Anonymity is out of favor in the press right now. Openness is in, and so is celebrity. Thus the identity of the messenger overpowers or distorts the significance of the message. We tend more and more to judge what we read and hear on the basis of who wrote or said it. This isn't always bad, but it can personalize important issues in a way that inhibits, rather than encourages, open discussion.

Most writers are ego-driven, and want their name on their work. But sometimes people with interesting ideas prefer to try them out anonymously. In today's culture of full disclosure, editors tend to reject such contributions, but perhaps it's time to reconsider that taboo.

This could be done by bringing back that venerable device, the pseudonym, or simply by publishing more unsigned articles. Such a move would take a little courage, because current journalistic fashion imputes a kind of truth-in-publishing morality nTC to the liberal use of bylines, but it would underscore the point that content counts.

In most newspapers, bylines are much more common now than they were a couple of generations ago. Once, bylines were added by editors to reward reporters who had done unusually good work, but that's ancient history now.

Nowadays bylines are included more as a matter of reportorial right than editorial reward. They've become so commonplace as to be almost invisible; the experienced newspaper-reading eye automatically blurs at a byline and cruises on. Although the dogma is that they're published for the benefit of the readers, the ironic fact is that bylines are generally ignored, except of course by the writers themselves and, no doubt, their mothers.

There have been instances in which the staff of a newspaper, usually in the throes of a labor dispute, voted to withhold their bylines in order to make a political point. But that hasn't happened recently, perhaps because more readers applauded the change than protested it.

Newspaper editorials traditionally are unsigned, although there is always pressure, usually from politicians, for publication of the names of the writers of editorials deemed objectionable. (No one seems to care about identifying the authors of editorials deemed superior.) The lack of bylines on editorials is intended to emphasize the institutional nature of the opinions they express.

This isn't unreasonable. If the editorializing voice is supposed to be the newspaper's, then why should it have Betsy Boodle's or Dilbert Doodle's byline on it? Anonymity forces readers to focus on an editorial's text, on what it actually says, rather than on its author. That's healthy. If newspapers could free themselves of the idea that every published opinion other than their own should have a name attached to it, they could be even healthier.

There is a long American tradition of anonymously-published writing on public affairs. Without it, public speech would have been less free and the debate over important issues less vigorous and less informed.

Most of the Federalist papers, 85 essays in support of the proposed new American Constitution, were published anonymously in New York newspapers during the winter of 1787-88. They were signed "Publius." Only later, when they appeared in book form, was it disclosed that the authors were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.

In 1947, a celebrated article in Foreign Affairs set forth the policy of containment that would define American relations with the Soviet Union for 40 years. It was signed "X." The author turned out to be George Kennan, but the article, like the Federalist papers, was the more influential because of its initial anonymity.

Those two examples -- and there are many more -- suggest that there can occasionally be practical value to the publication of an unbylined article, but that's really a secondary consideration. Philosophically and spiritually, it's good for almost any writer to publish anonymously from time to time. For one thing, it's a useful reality check, to see if the work can stand alone without an established author's celebrity to hold it up.

Walter Lippmann, when he ran the editorial page of the New York World, was once asked if it bothered him that so much of his own writing was unsigned. He said no, that there was a quite different satisfaction to be had from producing good work anonymously. The experience of many, though not all, editorial writers confirms that.

What about letters to the editor? If a newspaper were to publish more articles without bylines, would it have to accept anonymous letters? Of course not -- but there might be times when it should.

Few reputable newspapers currently publish unsigned letters at all, even when they've been given the writer's identity. Such a policy does of course discourage hysterical rantings and scurrilous assertions. But it can also force some useful commentary out of print and onto the talk-radio airwaves.

What's needed is more case-by-case editorial judgment, fewer inflexible rules, and a little less self-importance too. The latter, Walter Lippmann also observed, has ruined even more newspaper people than liquor.

:. Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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