Anonymous editors are a bigger problem than bylined reporters

Reporters are personally responsible for anything that appears under their bylines. For the reader, that means bylines provide a measure of accountability.

But some news articles – particularly political news articles – are so ill-conceived, so misguided, and so disconnected from reality that you can’t blame the reporters. At least not entirely.

In those cases, it’s the editors who are most at fault. In many cases, they assigned the article. They looked it over, maybe sent it back for revisions. At some point, they decided it was fine. And it’s the editors, not the reporters, who ultimately decided that it should see the light of day.

A newsroom has a culture that’s set by the top-level managers and owners, whose names are public. You can blame them for an institution’s overall credulity, deference to authority, commitment to both-sidesing, forgetfulness and smugness.

But it’s the mid-level editors who make it happen. They are the ones giving the orders, writing the headlines, failing to fix mistakes, and — too often — publishing garbage.

When I read something awful, I want to know not only who wrote it, but who assigned it? Who decided it was OK to publish it this way? Who wrote that headline? Who decided it merited big play? (When I read something terrific, I have the same questions.)

My whole “let me rewrite this for you” recurring feature is about editing failures. But I don’t know who to blame, because they don’t identify the responsible editors.

Almost alone among news organizations, Reuters identifies each article’s writers, reporters, and editors at the bottom, right above a link to its “trust principles.”

I call on other news organizations to start doing likewise.

It’s past time these editors showed themselves, instead of operating in anonymity – unaccountable, and also uncelebrated.

It also also ought to be obvious how to contact the reporters and editors for each story. I’d even like to see a solicitation, asking the sources of the story if they feel they were fairly represented, and asking readers if they have reason to believe that something in this article was inaccurate or requires clarification or expansion.

News CEOs see benefits in brands that are trusted. Journalism scholars have determined that transparency is what leads to trust.

So all I want is a little more transparency.

What Do I Want to Know?

For instance, I would really like to know:

Looking through my Press Watch archive and my Twitter timeline for older examples, I sure would have liked to know:

Editor v. Editor

I often feel that there are warring camps of editors at our major news organizations – and we deserve to know who’s where.

It was an editor on the Associate Press’s Team Spineless who moved this April 17, 2020 story reporting that Trump “has given governors a road map for recovering from the economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was an editor of Team Gutsy who moved this story, only hours later, saying that those guidelines “had the hallmarks of a permission structure. But what he really created was a blame structure.”

Someone on Team Spineless edited this October 9, 2020 story quoting Trump saying he felt “perfect” a week after his Covid diagnosis.

But someone on Team Gutsy approved this one, hours later, reporting that Trump had “demonstrated anew” that “he can’t be relied on to give a straight account of the disease that has afflicted millions, now including him.”

It’s inexplicable to an outsider without a roster.

The Washington Post, similarly, runs bold articles full of straight-shooting democracy coverage, like “Trump-allied lawyers pursued voting machine data in multiple states, records reveal” but also obsequious and obfuscating articles like “Michigan plot to breach voting machines points to a national pattern,” which tried to airbrush Republicans out of the picture. These don’t simply represent the work of different reporters; they represent utterly different editorial philosophies.

Sometimes, it’s the editors at the Post and the Times who go head to head. In 2019, both papers published stories on the biggest takeaways from the transcript of Trump’s extortionate phone call with Volodomyr Zelensky.

The Post’s version: “1. It mentions no explicit quid pro quo.”

The Times’ version: “1. Trump asked for an investigation into the Bidens.”

The Times won! But to whom should I have presented the award?

Who can I trust? Who can’t I? It’s not just the bylines that matter.


  1. The issues you address have been a huge problem for a very long time. I still want to know who the NY Times editor was who let Jeff Gerth publish all those bogus claims about Bill Clinton — Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, Chinagate — that were ginned up by rightwing operatives like the people at the Arkansas project.

    And who let Judith Miller report the false WMD claims vouched for by “independent sources” like Scooter Libby and Ahmed Chalabi who were part of Cheney’s echo chamber. And who decided it was OK to regurgitate the “research” about the Clinton Foundation that was described by Steve Bannon’s partner Peter Schweitzer in his book “Clinton Cash”. If those editors had required the same kind of rigorous vetting of sources that Ben Bradlee demanded from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein our country would have been spared a lot of pain and damage. In each case diligent reporters found that none of those claims were valid.


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