Who Is The New York Times' Woeful Opinion Section Even For? 

Who Is The New York Times' Woeful Opinion Section Even For? 
Illustration by Jim Cooke/Splinter/GMG, photos via Getty Images :

In late April, when New York Times Editorial Page Editor James Bennet announced the controversial hire of neoconservative columnist Bret Stephens, he framed the purpose of the paper’s opinion offerings in historical terms.

“When Adolph Ochs set out the mission for The New York Times at the end of the 19th century, he said he hoped to make its opinion pages a forum for ‘intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion,’” Bennet wrote. “Given how polarizing and partisan this era has become, we think it’s important to recommit ourselves to that goal.”

Nearly five months later, however, the section has come under increasing fire for being at odds with that august statement. It has recently displayed some of the worst attributes of online opinion writing—namely, cheap outrage—while harnessing little of the web’s potential for building community or providing truly interesting views. The paper has at points met those questioning its choices with a traditionally Timesian scowl.

The backlash from progressives, which had been simmering since Stephens was hired, has boiled over in recent weeks, thanks to a raft of pieces whose supposed intellectual provocations amount to little more than fancy trolling. At the same time, the ever-lurking question of what a diversity of opinion truly means in some of opinion journalism’s most prized real estate has been rekindled. Some staffers from the Times’ other sections, including savant magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, have likewise publicly objected to particular pieces:

The section’s defenders have meanwhile portrayed its detractors as special snowflakes crying for safe spaces.

Beyond the immediate reactions, though, lies a broader question: What, and for whom, should the Times’ opinion section be?

“The voice of our editorial page is proudly progressive, and it champions greater equality and opportunity, free speech, civil rights, human rights, and aggressive action on climate change,” Bennet wrote in an email to Splinter. “New York Times Opinion is equally proud to offer a forum for those whose views challenge or complicate or contradict our own.”

Online opinion writing can feel suffocating in its overabundance, making a robust section with high standards all the more important. Governance by an emotionally unstable grifter and two political parties in shambles make the issue all the more pressing. The New York Times won’t save us from our fresh hell of politics and media. But a newspaper that markets itself as the leading light of American journalism shouldn’t be making things worse.

The Times’ current staff offerings—key to building a community that’s both interested and interesting—are predictable. The editorial board that supposedly represents the paper’s institutional stances is overwhelmingly white, its opinions generally pedestrian. That’s not entirely the fault of its members, who are experienced and accomplished journalists. Editorials themselves are a dated genre, and opinion-by-committee isn’t a particularly compelling form of argument.

Individuals’ commentary tends to get far more mileage. And the Times’ bullpen of 14 regular columnists includes two white men named David, three women, and no women of color. Taken together, their output stretches from the tired orthodoxy of Clintonian Democrats to never-Trump conservatism. The idea that there is a genuine clash of ideas among these middle-aged writers is bizarre, and it harkens back to a political center that no longer exists—if it ever did.

Bennet, who previously ran The Atlantic, inherited that monolithic group when he came on board. Yet his first two columnist hires fit this safely Timesian mold. First, the editorial page editor brought on the hawkish Stephens from The Wall Street Journal to, as he put it, “diversify our lineup” and “foster collegial debate.”

In his initial column, in late April, Stephens questioned the predictions about the effects of climate change that the Times has reported on extensively. This slickly branded “climate agnostic” approach stuck a finger in the eye of both the Times’s readership and its newsroom. It risked mimicking the pundit-reporter dynamic seen at CNN, where in-house bloviators are paid to spout opinions that at times directly contradict the network’s own news reporting. Bennet defended the column as part of a “free exchange of ideas,” in what Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple described as a “Boilerplate Kumbaya Response to Public Outrage.” Several Times staffers went on to subtweet their new colleague:

Last week, the Times also added Michelle Goldberg, formerly of Slate, to its regular lineup. She’s a white feminist who could potentially be the paper’s most progressive voice. Having said that, she recently compared her politics to that of current Times columnists Paul Krugman and Charles Blow, backed Clinton in 2016 (though somewhat tepidly), and has been criticized in the past for elevating anti-trans voices. While she told HuffPost that she hopes to grapple more with leftist ideas at the Times, her addition would seem to illustrate the spectrum of debate there.

“When it comes to our lineup of columnists in particular, each of our existing columnists is excellent, but there’s no question we have work to do to broaden the range of perspectives and backgrounds overall,” Bennet said in his email to Splinter. “The additions of [Goldberg] and [Stephens] are a start, but just a start, and we’re very excited about recruiting other new, strong voices to the Times.”

The two are certainly sharp and prolific professional argument-makers. But their hires underline the question of when this broadening of perspectives and backgrounds will begin in earnest.

More than a year after Bernie Sanders exited the Democratic primary, there’s still no staff columnist reliably speaking to and for his legions of supporters. The same goes for those who genuinely back Trump’s trade and immigration policies. The lack of representation of the communities of color that increasingly elect the candidates the Times itself endorses is laughable. There are no Muslim or Arab-American columnists despite national debates over Islamophobia and terrorism, and no Latinx writers in an age where 11 million undocumented immigrants have targets on their backs. The views of young people inheriting our soul-sucking political system, which the Times and its establishment brethren helped create, are nowhere to be found. In some ways it’s understandable how apoplectic progressives have been in response to recent flubs; the conversations around the future of liberalism are leaving the would-be liberal paper of record behind. Folding such views into the Times’ regular offerings wouldn’t even require toasting David Brooks and his capicollo sandwiches.

“If you consider our work as a whole I think you will find as wide a range of views today as there’s ever been at the Times—including the views of Bernie Sanders, whom you mention—though we can always do better and we’re trying to,” Bennet told me.

Bennet is not wrong to want outside contributors to add flavor to his staff’s work. Still, recent attempts at needling the paper’s in-house conventional wisdom have led to some of its most embarrassing face-plants.

The op-ed page—opposite of the editorial page—was unveiled by the Times in 1970 to foster a true “conflict of ideas,” as onetime Editorial Page Editor John B. Oakes put it. Points of view clashing with the Times’ institutional perspective or biases would be especially welcome. Names floated as potential contributors ranged from Communists to members of the John Birch Society.

“They really wanted diversity when they came out—they really prized it,” said University of Maine media scholar Michael Socolow, who authored a 2010 paper on the origins of the op-ed page. Its debut contributors included a staff column on the need for super-sonic air travel; a Chinese novelist describing Beijing during the Cultural Revolution; a political scientist and former LBJ aide analyzing U.S. policy in Asia; and a New Republic contributing editor slamming Vice President Spiro Agnew. It was a radical expansion of the Times’s opinion offerings that other newspapers soon emulated, and it hasn’t fundamentally changed since then besides expanded publishing space and formats online.

“In general, we’re looking to challenge our own and our readers’ assumptions, and, we hope, put people who disagree on important questions into conversation with each other in order to sharpen everyone’s thinking,” Bennet wrote to Splinter.

Some recent attempts to do so, however, seemed to trade intellectual rigor or true diversity for the appearance thereof.

Take a recent op-ed by Erik Prince, who founded the security contractor Blackwater. Prince predictably argued that private military firms are the key to future U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Progressives admonished the Times for allowing a mercenary to hawk his wares (Blackwater has a particularly sordid history of abuses, as the Times has reported, including a conviction for the murder of Iraqi civilians that was eventually thrown out). But the deeper fault is that the hawkish views of the military industrial complex are already over-represented across media, and in the Times in particular. Prince himself penned similar op-eds about Afghanistan strategy in the USA Today in August and The Wall Street Journal in May.

The piece wouldn’t have met the criteria for submissions laid out by the paper’s then-Op-Ed Page Editor David Shipley in 2004, including “freshness of opinion.”

“Op-Ed real estate is too valuable to be taken up with press releases,” Shipley wrote.

Prince’s much-criticized piece comes in addition to the emerging pattern of op-eds that seem to have tried to provoke mostly liberal Times readers at the expense of editorial rigor or good-faith arguments. On August 29, The Times published an op-ed belittling Chelsea Manning by a writer who, to borrow a Times staffer’s words, was “plainly uninterested in understanding” her transgender identity.

Then, on August 30, came a column cheering cultural appropriation by a staff editor, Bari Weiss, who doesn’t seem to understand cultural appropriation. These pieces were followed on September 1 by a critique of Colin Kaepernick by an author with a comically simplistic understanding of NFL quarterbacking.

When I put it to Bennet that such pieces troll Times readers—and in turn taint the section—he disputed my definition. “I’d say that to troll is to be deliberately offensive with the goal of infuriating people,” he wrote. “That doesn’t interest us and it’s not what we do.” He continued:

It’s probably inevitable that anything provocative we post will offend someone, or many people (and my own mother has been known to object) but we don’t pat ourselves on the back for making people mad, much less take that anger as evidence that we’re necessarily doing the right thing. We debate constantly among ourselves whether one idea or another falls outside the boundaries of what Ochs called “intelligent discussion.” It’s our privilege and our obligation as editors to define those bounds, but it’s always a judgment call in the end, and no doubt we’ll overstep at times. That is clearly less dangerous to our readers and society as a whole than the risk we’d run not hearing ideas we might be inclined to disagree with.

It’s not all terrible, of course. The Times does publish fresh and interesting work in addition to Brooks’ moralizing and Maureen Dowd. It can commission virtually anyone in the world to write for it.

But the recent blunders all miss in the same direction. For instance, since Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced impending changes to federal guidelines for how colleges should adjudicate sexual assaults, Stephens and Ross Douthat wrote essentially the same column, condemning progressives’ “campus witch hunts” and “campus rape tribunals,” respectively. Weiss added her own piece on Tuesday about how left-wing protesters at UC Berkeley are stifling conservatives’ free speech rights. (Left unsaid was how Berkeley rescheduled a lecture by an anthropology scholar to accommodate said conservatives.) We get it: Liberal overreach—and in turn, liberal media myopia—is why Trump won.

This was a primary takeaway of the 2016 election. And it fits conveniently along the traditional axis by which most journalists view politics. Criticism of the Times opinion section points to a growing exasperation that it has over-learned this lesson without fundamentally repositioning itself to fit the current moment in American political culture. For those seeking a media standard-bearer to help lead them through the Trump era, the painful realization is that they may have to look elsewhere.

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