When Rod Rosenstein allegedly made his remarks about investigating and/or removing Trump on May 16, he was doing so in the light of two big, flashing neon signs that said SOMETHING WEIRD IS GOING ON WITH DONALD TRUMP AND RUSSIA. When Rosenstein did take action on May 17, though, it wasn’t to instigate a constitutional crisis or bug the Oval Office but to appoint Mueller, a decision in line with previous presidential-scandal precedent that was praised by figures in both parties as an appropriate response to events. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said Rosenstein’s decision would “ensure” that “thorough and independent investigations are allowed to follow the facts wherever they may lead,” while Republican North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a bipartisan statement that the appointment was a “positive development” which would create “some certainty for the American people that the [Russia] investigation will proceed fairly and free of political influence.
In June 2018, after facing sharp, persistent criticism of its reliance on anonymous sources to break news about the Trump administration, the Times published a brief explanation of its practices and guidelines when using anonymous sources.
The Times sometimes agrees not to identify people who provide information for our articles. Under our guidelines, anonymous sources should be used only for information that we think is newsworthy and credible, and that we are not able to report any other way.
...Besides the reporter, at least one editor must know the identity of the source. Use of anonymous sources in any story must be approved by a high-ranking editor, usually a department head like the International editor or the Washington bureau chief, or their deputies. When the anonymous sourcing is central to the story, it generally must be approved by an even higher-ranking editor like a deputy managing editor.
We understand readers’ wariness, but many important stories in sensitive areas like politics, national security and business could never be reported if we banned anonymous sourcing. Sources often fear for their jobs or business relationships — sometimes even for their safety.
Vox pointed out many conservatives were equally outraged at the Rosenstein piece, arguing that it was yet another example of the Times' dubious usage of anonymous sources within the government.
[M]any on the right who believe that the “deep state” is attempting to usurp President Trump and remove him from the White House finally received some evidence to support their claims. But unfortunately for them, the evidence isn’t from declassified FISA orders or even, for the more conspiratorial, from FEMA text messages. It’s from the “failing New York Times” and anonymous sources. And that’s mitigating much of what might otherwise be a breathless call for Rosenstein’s firing.
Writer Margaret Sullivan criticized the Times' use of anonymous sources in a 2013 op-ed for the paper. However, in the end, Sullivan conceded that anonymous sources are sometimes necessary to fully report on newsworthy stories.
[S]ome of the most important journalism, solidly in the public interest, has relied on confidential sources. The Watergate scandal would never have been reported without them. Nor would the landmark warrantless wiretapping story in The Times in 2005 by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. There are countless more recent others.
In addition, those who complain about The Times’s anonymously sourced reporting prior to the Iraq war ought to remember that the more skeptical (and much praised) reporting on that subject from the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau was full of unidentified sources, too. Anonymous sourcing doesn’t equal bad reporting.
One New York Times reader felt strongly the publication of the Rosenstein story amounted to retelling gossip and could have serious repercussions for the entire country.
I suppose you would argue that your job is to print the news, whatever it is. However, thinking so narrowly is an abdication of your responsibility, and I’m not sure this was really news anyway. To ignore the consequences of your stories is not ethical and is no service to democracy. You have a profound duty to consider whether the news value is worth the damage the reporting will do. In this case, I do not believe it was.
Using solely anonymous sources — and they better have been some pretty amazing sources, given the strength of the denial — to tell us that a government employee is frustrated with his boss is hardly news. That there is chaos in the administration and the president is erratic is hardly news.
Perry Bacon Jr. a reporter who has "covered Congress, the White House, several presidential campaigns and briefly the Education and State departments" wrote an explainer on the usage of anonymous sources and when readers should be skeptical of their inclusion for FiveThirtyEight.
Bacon Jr. claims that even though anonymous sources pose many potential issues in a piece, their inclusion is necessary to break many major news stories.
[M]ajor investigative stories, both in Washington and outside of it, are often impossible to write without unnamed sources. The alternative to stories with unnamed sources is often not having the story published at all, rather than the same story with names. Sources have a wide range of motives for not going public. Some reasons are noble (whistleblowers may face retribution for leaking details to a reporter). Some are not (White House aides, both in the Trump administration and previous ones, sometimes don’t like one another and complain anonymously about their colleagues to the press).