Opinions. Every asshole has one, or something. Opinions are good! People who have no opinions are boring. But what about opinion sections of newspapers? Are they good? Should newspapers even have them?
First, let’s talk about me, the Leah of Leah Letter. I would like you to know more about me, and feel free to ask me personal questions at any time. One of my first jobs in journalism was in the Opinion section of the New York Times. I was mostly in charge of fixing paper jams in the printers and keeping track of Thomas Friedman’s schedule, among other things (fun fact about Thomas Friedman: whenever he sends an email, he makes the subject line “Thomas Friedman”).
It was a fine job. Formative years. I learned to edit. I learned how to yell at people on the phone. I met some really brilliant people who influenced me in positive ways. I also met some people who were kind of evil and wanted to do bad things with content. One time I asked an editor if we should work on bringing more women writers to the page and she said, “but what about the soft bigotry of low expectations?”
Still, I thought the section did some good things during my time there, although I can’t really remember any of them so maybe it wasn’t that good. But I came to understand some things about opinion journalism. A good opinion section is not one that seeks to confirm its readers’ values, but challenge them. A good opinion section is provocative, thoughtful, and delightful. A good opinion section will turn down an op-ed submission from a head of state that doesn’t say anything. A good opinion section does not kowtow to blowhards.
You might say that the Times has a responsibility, in this fiery era, to present opinions that will cause Trump to resign or be impeached. But the Times is not a radical, or even particularly progressive, paper. It refused to acknowledge the AIDS crisis in in the ‘80s. It basically started the Iraq War. It could be argued that it helped give rise to Trump by hammering Hillary Clinton on everything it could possibly hammer her on. It didn’t even know what bubble tea was until a few weeks ago. Traditional newspapers are by nature conservative, not wanting to believe anything is happening until there is concrete, or official, proof, which marginalizes the oppressed who do not have means of providing such proof.
An opinion section is a crucial part of the sad business of a newspaper. Like it or not, a shit-ton of people look forward to reading David Brooks, the paragon of family values who married his decades-younger assistant no judgment just stating facts. The politics of idiotic centrists who pontificate on specious social trends closely mirror the politics of most of the paper’s employees: over 50, white, well-educated, and generally disdainful of the young. At the end of the day, though, the Times is a content mill, and there are deadlines, and traffic quotas, and column inches to fill. And so sometimes it publishes bullshit.
But there’s been a remarkable uptick in the bullshit published since James Bennet, formerly of the Atlantic, became editorial page editor last year. James Bennet is the Spencer Pratt of opinion journalism. This guy loves to troll, and position his writers as martyrs for their bad opinions. He also seems kinda bad at the basics of his job (writing and making sure facts are correct).
But one thing Bennet appears to get is the internet. (Another one of my duties at the Times was running the @nytopinion account. I was very bad at this because I have trouble writing in an institutional voice and also respecting authority.) The right-wing agenda that Bennet’s section is embracing through sponsored content from Erik Prince and op-eds about how identity politics are bad by a writer whose politics are her entire identity is ideal deadwood for the tinderbox of the internet. Light a match and watch it burn!
But the controversial pieces the Opinion section runs under the auspices of fomenting some sort of “conversation” are done so disingenuously. The Times is not furthering useful conversation with these bad and wrong op-eds, it is spraying its readers in the eyes with tear gas and then asking them why they’re screaming. They’re not seeking to upend established, calcified viewpoints, but deliberately instigating anger and spreading disinformation in an insincere attempt to “show both sides.” This is particularly egregious when you consider that, post-Trump, the Times has widely marketed itself as a crusader for capital-T Truth and an essential component of a healthy democracy. But the Times’ version of the Truth is highly subjective, and when it lends credence to vile idiots like Erik Prince or Louise Mensch, it loses any semblance of legitimacy.
People expect a lot from the Times, much like they expect Tina Fey to solve the nation’s problems with comedy and then get mad at her when she does jokes. Newspapers are emotional! I know. But it’s fairly insane how out-of-touch the Times’ Opinion section is. Frankly, I’m tired of being trolled.
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