New York Times dumps "op-eds" for "guest essays": A great start, but not nearly enough

The op-ed is dead, and good riddance. But "guest essays" will only work if editors open the doors to new voices

Published May 6, 2021 5:50AM (EDT)

A view of The New York Times Building Headquarters. (John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A view of The New York Times Building Headquarters. (John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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Changing a label, in and of itself, never solves anything. But the New York Times opinion section's big announcement last week that what we've described for decades as "op-eds" will henceforth be known as "guest essays" is a fantastic and important move — if editors there are bold enough to take the next logical steps.

The result could be a brilliant reinvention of the intellectual public square, full of wonderfully diverse voices where the only barrier to entry is a willingness to argue in good faith. 

A space currently bounded by conventional establishment wisdom — occasionally breached by  trolling — could instead expose the Times audience to the full range of national discourse, with all interesting, relevant and honestly argued viewpoints welcome.

This of course is a best-case scenario. It depends on Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury and her new deputy Patrick Healy (fresh from overseeing the Times's deeply flawed politics coverage) openly recognizing the error of their previous ways. 

While that might seem almost inconceivable, they do take their marching orders from publisher A.G. Sulzberger, who, at an all-hands staff meeting after he fired Kingsbury's predecessor James Bennet back in June, bluntly expressed his view that the op-ed format was broken. "I think there's a structural problem with the form itself," he said. 

So how does this reinvention begin with a label change? Let me explain.

The term "op-ed" was antiquated, opaque and, most importantly, ambiguous. Although the "op-ed" designation was ostensibly intended (since its coinage 50 years ago) to provide views distinct from those of the Times itself — with its essays placed "opposite" the editorial page — the presence of the Times's own staff "op-ed columnists" muddled the message, effectively giving anything that ran there the imprimatur of the Times.

As University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow, who has traced the history of the Time op-ed page, explains: "For many Times readers (and even employees), the page looks like a unified platform or singularly powerful megaphone, and therefore anyone given access must be pre-approved and judged endorsement-worthy."

So while the Times opinion section was publicly committed to a tolerance for "different views," it was effectively a space defined by its columnists, who ranged all the way from center-left to center-right. Of late, center-right extended to include climate skepticism and anti-Arab racism but not Trumpism. Center-left stopped well short of anti-capitalism. And the voices of the marginalized were off the page almost entirely. 

Now, with the "guest essays" label putting non-staff writing clearly at arm's length, the original mission of the op-ed feels attainable. 

Quality control, not opinion control

That would mean an actual diversity of views, not just from across the traditional political spectrum, but across other spectra as well. Kingsbury vowed precisely that in an interview on CNN's "Reliable Sources" on Sunday, saying: "We want to publish a wide range of opinions, arguments, ideas, whether it's across the left-right spectrum, but as most Americans, you know, really looking far beyond that spectrum."

She also said, "We can't be afraid to hear out and interrogate all ideas, especially bad ones, because in my opinion, that's the most effective way to knock them down."

CNN's Brian Stelter recognized that as a powerful principle: "So, read it, challenge it, rebut it. That's the opposite of cancel culture, isn't it?"

"Exactly," Kingsbury said.

There are still some things that guest essayists shouldn't be allowed to do on the pages of the New York Times — chief among them inciting violence and advocating genocide. But beyond that, if a view is held by a politically significant portion of the American electorate, it deserves to be part of the mix.

That means explicitly welcoming anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and pro-Arab arguments that have historically been shunned, as well as writers who are younger, more diverse, less credentialed and less fortunate. 

And especially now, the political right has a lot of explaining to do. With the Republican Party unmoored from reality, actively nativist and anti-science, it's crucial that people who speak for it be invited to at least attempt to articulate what their actual views are and how they arrived at them. 

The key for the Times opinion section going forward should be quality control, not opinion control. There should be a near-zero tolerance for bad-faith arguments — those that rely on false statement, hyperbole, unfair descriptions of competing views, absurd straw men, logical fallacies and trolling. But as long as the arguments are honest, I think almost anything goes. 

That would be a huge ratcheting up of standards from those the Times opinion page currently applies, which mostly rely on the quaint notion of "fact-checking," which is both anemic and insufficient

Not every publication could pull this off — in fact, maybe not any publication other than that one — but did you know that nearly 150 people work at the New York Times opinion section? This is where editors come in.

Here's what Sewell Chan, the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times — and a former deputy opinion editor at the New York Times — had to say in a recent panel discussion, which I think was dead-on:

Instead of thinking about "Are some ideas acceptable or not acceptable?" … what I think we're more likely to be encountered with are ideas that are provocative or challenging or difficult or controversial. And our job as editors is to help the writer — whether we personally agree or not is not relevant — our job is to help the writer adduce evidence to make the strongest possible logical and persuasive case. But it ultimately has to be a case that is grounded in logic, persuasion and evidence. And if we do that, I actually think a lot of ideas that are provocative or difficult can enter the discourse. And yes, they'll provoke people or upset people. But we've done our duty as opinion editors because we've at least exposed our readers to the broad range of views throughout. 

Practically speaking, helping some writers meet those standards will be hard, if not impossible — especially for essayists who are at heart advocating such things as nativism or Christian supremacy, but who are accustomed to launching their arguments by denying any such thing.

And it may be impossible for Republicans to honestly address the most important question of the moment: Why they continue to engage in the Big Lie (and so many smaller ones).

But then they've opted out; they haven't been silenced. If they complain about being canceled, just turn over the email chain.

Imagine if a process like this had been in place when Sen. Tom Cotton wrote an op-ed last June full of slippery and dishonest arguments attempting to incite the violent dispersal of Black Lives Matter protesters. Rather than getting published — and then retracted, but only after a newsroom revolt that ended Jim Bennet's career — it would have been either edited into an honest expression of Cotton's objection to BLM protests or, more likely, spiked.

Who is this person and why did we invite them?

As part of the "redesign" of Opinion, New York Times lead product designer Dalit Shalom promised a "second important editorial change": "a more detailed bio about the author whose opinion we are sharing." Adopting a "dinner party metaphor," the designer wrote that "this kind of intentional introduction can be seen as a toast, providing context, clarity and relevance around who someone is and why we chose them to write an essay."

There's been no sign of any such thing thus far. Bios remain a couple or three lines long, offering little more than institutional affiliations.

But increased transparency is an essential part of the way forward, as I argued immediately after Bennet's ouster. Firstly, it would fix the longstanding problem caused by the wildly insufficient identification of opinion writers' sometimes spectacular conflicts of interests.

Beyond that, it would provide readers with valuable context: Why was this person invited to offer a guest essay in the first place? What do they bring to the table? 

In some cases, that could even include a warning — an advisory that the views expressed are potentially highly offensive to those who share the Times editorial board's devotion to "progress, fairness and shared humanity," but nevertheless are an important part of the national discourse, and that this writer has been judged to be making their argument in good faith.

That distancing — combined with an honest and defensible explanation of why an essay was nevertheless worth publishing — would make it much harder for the Times to publish something like the Cotton piece, which was the ultimate example of how low the Times was willing to lower its standards in order to demonstrate a willingness to publish views from "both sides." 

But let's be clear: The publishing of performative garbage has not stopped under Kingsbury. When right-wing icon Rush Limbaugh died in February, Kingsbury understandably wanted to showcase a variety of writers, each with "a distinctive and authoritative point of view on Limbaugh's legacy." 

(The essay from feminist writer Jill Filipovic — "Cracking open his slobbering hatred of women allows insight into his success, as well as the perversion of the party he championed," she wrote — was one of the sharpest pieces of opinion journalism I've read all year.) 

But for the fanboy view, Kingsbury picked Ben Shapiro, the hard-right provocateur well known for his bad-faith arguments. 

In an essay explaining her thinking, Kingsbury acknowledged Shapiro's "trollish online presence and, to me, unpalatable views." But she defended her selection by calling him "popular" on the right and "well positioned to carry Limbaugh's message to a new generation of listeners."

What Shapiro turned in, predictably, was a stream of offensive, valueless liberal-eye-poking that praised Limbaugh for "fighting back against the predations of a left that seeks institutional and cultural hegemony."

As political journalist Mehdi Hasan tweeted, Shapiro was allowed to write about Limbaugh, in the New York Times, without having to "mention or grapple with" Limbaugh's record of misogyny and bigotry. 

It might have been of some value to hear Shapiro honestly address Limbaugh's darkness. Apparently, the Times editors actually asked him to. In a podcast a few days later, after Megyn Kelly mockingly quoted Hasan's tweet, Shapiro replied that the Times' editors "wanted me to do some of that stuff too." But, he said, "I'm not gonna do that."

Kingsbury published his piece anyway. She shouldn't have.

How to expand the range

Ironically, considering what a debacle that was, Kingsbury's concept of featuring a variety of voices on a particular topic should be one of the ways the Times starts to diversify its guest essays going forward — with the ever-present requirement that they actually have something of value to offer, and do so without deceit. 

Another good move would be to encourage writers to respond to what they've read in the opinion pages, something explicitly discouraged in the current guidelines, which relegate such responses to the letters page.   

When someone like author Heather McGhee writes something as mind-blowing as her Feb. 13 op-ed about how white people turned the U.S. economy into a zero-sum game after the civil rights movement, that's an occasion to host a multiplicity of views. Admittedly, in that case Times columnist Michelle Goldberg proceeded to write about it and Times podcaster Ezra Klein proceeded to interview McGhee — but why not get responses from people who have watched this process play out and, for that matter, people who defend it?

Immigration policy is a hugely important, complicated and nuanced issue that would benefit from an intelligent exchange of views. Some issues, like voting rights, have only one defensible view. But the opinion page should try to find someone on the opposing side who will be honest about their goals, at least.

I'd like to see debate about media narratives and framing. Should the behavior of the Republican Party continue to be normalized by political reporters, no matter how extreme it is? At what point do you declare a politician, or a party, presumptively untrustworthy?

The opinion pages should also address fundamental underlying issues that rarely make it into daily journalism despite their significance in day-to-day life, like wealth inequality, educational inequality, misogyny and the corrupting lure of money. 

The opinion pages should showcase non-writers. People living incarcerated lives. People living in poverty. The undereducated. Let's revive the "as told to" format, if necessary. Washington Post reporter Eli Zaslow's Voices From the Pandemic series reminded us of its incredible power.

It's quite possible that only the Times, with its huge opinion staff, could do this right. As I wrote last year, the major 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 those of oppressed people.

As Sewell Chan has said, "people's authentic lived experiences" are "often as important a form of authority as traditional research scholarship."  

The ubiquity of both cell-phone video and Zoom conferences suggests new ways of presenting the voices of real people. 

The key, of course, is not just to look for soundbites that fit a predetermined narrative (an unfortunate hallmark of Kingsbury's new deputy, the aforementioned Patrick Healy). The key is to find people who lead representative lives and get them to honestly express not just what their views are, but how they came to hold them. 

In her essay explaining the opinion redesign, Kingsbury hearkened back to the original goals of the op-ed section — "the allure of clashing opinions well expressed" — and vowed to host a space "where voices can be heard and respected, where ideas can linger a while, be given serious consideration, interrogated and then flourish or perish."

I wish her godspeed. But doing that will depend on her recognizing how much more there is to do than change a label.

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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Commentary James Bennet Journalism Kathleen Kingsbury Media New York Times Op-ed Press Watch Tom Cotton