Can the New York Times opinion section heal itself? Yes — it can even lead the way

After the Tom Cotton snafu and the departure of James Bennet, the Times has a golden opportunity to set an example

Published June 11, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

The New York Times building in the west side of Midtown Manhattan.  (Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The New York Times building in the west side of Midtown Manhattan. (Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, an independent site that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

The removal of James Bennet as editorial page editor of the New York Times is a powerful sign of the dawning recognition within the news industry of two massive failures:

  1. The failure to properly adjust to the modern Republican Party's rejection of fact-based arguments in favor of deceit, divisiveness and incitement.
  2. The failure to proudly advocate for legitimate journalistic values when they are under siege, starting with the truth and the First Amendment, but extending to civil liberties, civil rights and a humane society.

These failures were not the stated cause of Bennet's departure. Technically, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger fired Bennet because he created and oversaw a system in which vile, dangerous, inaccurate racist right-wing trolling could zip right through the editorial process and onto the Times homepage without any difficulty.

But that system was the byproduct of those failures.

And Bennet's departure provides a rare and much-needed opportunity to rethink the role of opinion within news organizations everywhere, in a way that rectifies them.

There's another way

The New York Times editorial pages have been both wonderful and deeply problematic, in a number of ways, for a very long time.

But the most immediate problem is that the Times opinion section is ostensibly devoted to hosting a wide range of views, at a time when some of the people who hold power in the United States are advancing arguments that are dishonest as well as morally and politically repugnant — at least by the standards of a society that we thought was gradually bending toward justice.

Simply ignoring those arguments deprives readers of the full spectrum of views that are being debated in the public sphere.

But publishing them under the imprimatur of the Times — which right now is widely and reasonably interpreted as the Times vouching for them, at least to some extent — isn't a satisfactory option, either.

Sulzberger himself identified this as a major problem at a fiery all-hands Times staff meeting he led on Friday to address the roiling controversy over editorial-page policies.

According to the transcript published by Vice, Sulzberger acknowledged what he called "the brokenness of [the] form, the ambiguity of, like, what were we trying to say there? Were we trying to say, 'Here's this view; you should be alarmed by it'? Were we trying to say, 'Here's this view; you should agree with it'?… Was it supposed to speak just in opposition to the editorials we've run?"

His conclusion: "That's part of the reason why I think there's a structural problem with the form itself."

So what's the solution?

I think the form can be salvaged if the Times, going forward, resolves the ambiguity over its motives — by publicly revealing them.

What I'm suggesting is something that folks in the industry call radical transparency. In this case, it provides a way forward that would allow the editors of the Times (or any other news organization) to present a very wide range of opinion indeed — even in crazy times — without sacrificing their moral and journalistic obligations.

It would require Times opinion editors to establish clear, public standards for accuracy, good faith and pertinence.

Then, every time the paper publishes an opinion piece, editors would provide an honest and defensible explanation of why they chose that particular topic and author.

If and when they feel it's essential to publish a piece even though it fails to meet their standards in some way, they would describe how it failed, and would explain why they ran it anyway.

This would allow the Times editorial editors to maintain and even clarify their values, while at the same time exposing readers to the full range of the sometimes appalling public discourse, rather than protecting them from it.

As a bonus, radical transparency could also force the Times to address other long-term problems, including its wildly insufficient identification of opinion writers' sometimes spectacular conflicts of interests, and its employment of liberal-trolling columnists whose only value is that the Times can hold them up as evidence that they don't just publish liberal views.

Furthermore, providing readers with honest and defensible reasons for why something is being published would dissuade the distribution of trolling and clickbait — because there are no defensible reasons to publish trolling and clickbait.

The Cotton op-ed

The crucial backstory here is that the Times last Wednesday published on its website an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, headlined "Send in the Troops."

Crooked's Brian Beutler described it as "a manifesto for suppressing dissent in America with state-sanctioned violence." David Roberts, writing in Vox, called it "paranoid domination porn about state violence visited on political enemies, meant to whip up authoritarian sentiment."

The Cotton op-ed provoked an open revolt among many Times staffers, among others. Black reporters in particular saw it as not just objectionable, but manifestly dangerous.

Sulzberger, in an initial message to staff on Thursday defending the op-ed's publication, wrote: "I believe in the principle of openness to a range of opinions, even those we may disagree with." He also noted: "We don't publish just any argument — they need to be accurate, good faith explorations of the issues of the day."

What Sulzberger eventually recognized, however, was that Cotton's op-ed was not accurate, was not a good-faith exploration of the issue, and was meant as pure incitement rather than a serious policy proposal. The staff complaints were legitimate. On Thursday night, an editors' note was appended to the top of Cotton's essay, saying that it "fell short of our standards and should not have been published."

Bennet was fired on Sunday. "Both of us concluded that James would not be able to lead the team through the next leg of change that is required," Sulzberger said in a statement.

Sulzberger's ground rules were not the problem. The ground rules are solid. There is indeed great value in exposing readers of the Times to a wide range of arguments about legitimate topics of debate that are accurate and made in good faith.

The problem is: What do you do with the other stuff?

What do you do with the arguments being made in social media, on Fox News, in the White House and by Donald Trump himself that are unhinged, untethered to reality, unconstitutional, racist and dangerous — but are nevertheless unavoidably part of the national debate?

As Times columnist (and former Salon staffer) Michelle Goldberg wrote in a particularly brave and astute column on Thursday about Cotton's essay, it's become an ongoing predicament:

Before Donald Trump became president, most newspaper op-ed pages sought to present a spectrum of politically significant opinion and argument, which they could largely do while walling off extremist propaganda and incitement. The Trump presidency has undermined that model, because there's generally no way to defend the administration without being either bigoted or dishonest. …

It's important to understand what the people around the president are thinking. But if they're honest about what they're thinking, it's usually too disgusting to engage with. This creates a crisis for traditional understandings of how the so-called marketplace of ideas functions. It's a subsidiary of the crisis that has the country on fire.

The Cotton essay was not a tough call, because it was puerile and inflammatory, as well as being deeply offensive.

But even if a point of view is disgusting — even if it's hurtful — it may be important enough that it's worth publishing.

And if that's what you're going to do, you need to explain why you're doing it, rather than just shoving things out there in a way that readers may plausibly interpret as you vouching for it.

Opening up

So first you would explain the ground rules: That you publish a wide range of opinion, as long as it is within the realm of what you consider reasonable debate, and is factually correct, and is written in good faith.

And then you would explain why you are making an exception.

You would call attention to and refute the assertions that aren't factual, you would identify and explicate how certain arguments are made in bad faith, you would explain why you consider the views morally abhorrent.

And then you would explain why it's important enough that you decided to run it anyway. You would explain whether you solicited it, whether you edited it, why this author was given a platform and why now. If there were internal arguments about the piece, you could publish those too. (Under the previous editorial page editor, Andy Rosenthal, the Times apparently had an email group of several dozen people, called "Op-Discuss," where drafts circulated and people provided feedback. Now, of course, they have Slack, too.)

You would link to alternate views, to news stories and to good sources for context. Maybe you would even enable some form of online annotation so that staff, other opinion writers, experts or select readers could comment on specific assertions.

This would a revolutionary move. News organizations have historically been minimalist even when it comes to accurately identifying who opinion writers are — presumably a relic of the space limitations in print. But that's a real disservice to readers. Online, vast amounts of useful information can be raised up without taking away anything from the text.

Wait — it gets better

On a radically transparent editorial page, you wouldn't just explain your rationale for publishing opinions that are an exception to your ground rules. You'd do it for every opinion piece you run, and for every columnist you hire.

For a lot of op-eds, that wouldn't be difficult at all. If the person is a legitimate expert in their field and the topic is pressing, you would simply explain that — and, of course, note the presence or absence of any conflicts of interest.

But for a lot of political opinion pieces, you would need to explain more. Why did you pick this author, among others who share the same view? Are they saying something new? Where are they coming from? Is this argument surprising, coming from them? (This is one of the things I'm always trying to figure out.) Is their argument obviously in their own interests, or is it an admission against interest?

That kind of information would hugely enrich a reader's understanding — or skepticism — about what they are reading

Radical transparency would get trickier when it comes to explaining why certain people have been given regular columns. But readers deserve to know more about what makes them so special, where they're coming from and the range of their views.

Admittedly, being forced to explain the presence of certain people, in an honest and defensible way, would be particularly difficult.

Notably, two of Bennet's first hires, Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, were added to the mix to give the appearance of "broadening the range of Times debate about consequential questions," as Bennet put it at the time. But their columns have amounted to little more than "trolling the libs," while failing to actually represent anything remotely like the extremist right-wing ideology that now dominates the Republican Party.

As Goldberg put it:

Opinion sections, eager to maintain ideological diversity without publishing lies or stuff that belongs in Breitbart, have therefore filled up with anti-Trump conservatives. As a result, newspapers like this one have often been criticized for elevating an intellectual clique that has little mass base or political influence.

In fact, having to defend their choice of columnists might encourage the Times editors to truly broaden a range of views that Glenn Greenwald wrote in 2017 consists of "the vague, safe, Washington-approved middle ground, members in good standing of the newly overt neoliberal-neoconservative alliance."

Two of Bennet's more recent hires, Goldberg and Jamelle Bouie, have distinguished themselves as serious, left-leaning thinkers who consistently make tremendous contributions to our discourse. But there is still no regular writer genuinely challenging Times readers from the left. And of course there is no one wiling to honestly defend Trumpism — although such a person may not exist.

Radical transparency would also require a public and accountable commitment to diversity — in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status and age — both in hiring and in choosing who to publish. The Times should be more transparent about who comprises the opinions staff. Going forward, it should keep a running tally of the backgrounds of its contributors — at least internally — to better understand the problem.

If the Times continues to find what it's looking for disproportionately from elite, white people, then maybe it's looking for the wrong things.

The huge investment Bennet made in investigative reporting projects for the opinion section — which seems redundant to me — could be better used finding and raising up underrepresented voices, especially voices of oppressed people. Multimedia and social media are great ways to bring a wider range of people into the discourse.

I'd also like to see the Times host non-elite, pro-Trump voices — not simply by parroting their words across a diner table, but as part of an exploration into the ugly world of racist fantasies and incitement in which so many of them live, how they got there, and what if anything would make them turn away. (See my column from last October, "Political journalists are doing voter interviews all wrong.")

Good for the whole newsroom

Radical transparency is the absolute opposite of the "view from nowhere" neutrality that news organizations so often strive to maintain — yet it actually achieves the goals that neutrality is intended, but fails, to realize: It fully informs the readers and earns their trust.

And it's good for the whole newsroom, not just for the opinion side.

Radical transparency, in fact, was the top journalism recommendation in a terribly underappreciated 2019 report from the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy titled "Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America."

"This includes a call for news entities to disclose the context for every facet of their operations, ranging from business infrastructure to editorial decision-making to community engagement," the report said.

It's a powerful and journalistically appropriate alternative to the old ways that are increasingly being rejected by the future leaders of the industry. Consider the words of Wesley Lowery, the talented young reporter who left the Washington Post after running afoul of its arbitrarily-enforced social media rules. He tweeted a week ago:

New York Times media columnist Ben Smith on Sunday described the tension between, on the one hand, "a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral," and on the other, "journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls." He concluded that "the shift in mainstream American media … now feels irreversible."

If Smith sounded a bit sad about it, here's why: In a Twitter thread the next day, he shared the view that by giving up the perception of objectivity, "you surrender some power to persuade."

But my sense is that an honest, transparent journalistic application of moral clarity — whether in the opinion section or the news section — doesn't surrender the power to persuade, but enhances it.

From what I've seen, there's no evidence that political reporting that maintains "objectivity" through the application of strained euphemisms, flagrant false equivalence, amnesia and credulousness does a damn thing to build trust with readers and viewers. Indeed, there's plenty of evidence (on Twitter alone!) that it does the opposite.

If we truly believe in what we do as journalists, then we are best off doing it with complete transparency. We preach about the need for open governance and the dangers of unnecessary secrecy. Let's practice it, too.

By Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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