Who Will Op-Ed the Op-Eds?
If “all the news that is fit to print” becomes an argument more than a mission statement, Americans are going to see fit to find their news elsewhere.
The New York Times is having a rough week. Long time columnist Tom Jones summarizes:
In case you missed what happened, here’s a quick explanation: The Times ran an op-ed from Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who said the military should be deployed to deal with protests across the country. Times staffers and others said the op-ed was dangerous, threatening and not factual. More than 800 Times staffers signed a letter objecting to it, saying it put people of color in jeopardy.
At first, publisher A.G. Sulzberger and Bennet defended the op-ed, saying the Times should welcome views from all sides. But then Bennet said it was wrong to run the op-ed, that it was rushed into publication, that the editing process was flawed and, shockingly, then admitted to not even reading the op-ed before it ran online. The Times addressed the issue in a company-wide town hall on Friday and, while Times staffers remained angry and confused, it appeared Bennet would keep his job.
Then came Sunday’s sudden resignation, which reportedly surprised staffers at the Times.
On the surface, it would appear Bennet’s resignation is a result of what happened last week. But Sulzberger’s note to staff made it seem as if this was merely the final straw. He wrote, “Last week we saw a significant breakdown in our editing processes, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years. James and I agreed that it would take a new team to lead the department through a period of considerable change.”
But you have to assume that if the Cotton op-ed had never happened, Bennet would still have one of the most powerful and influential jobs in American journalism.
So that brings us back to the heart of this matter: Should the Times have run the op-ed or not?
Should or shouldn’t is one argument, one that has been raging across the media table in the national conversation lunch room. What is going on, though, is a lot more than just an op-ed. Senator Tom Cotton, who is up for re-election but short of getting hit by a bus is going to continue to represent Arkansas, has ambitious designs on higher office. The op-ed was garbage — a giant troll of populist pulp from someone in Cotton who knew it to be just that. Yet his pontificating Pez dispenser of nonsense isn’t really the problem here. Cotton will be fundraising and living large off this free press for months.
What it reveals about the inner workings and factions at the nation’s “paper of record” is far more important.
It’s tempting to handwave such elite media intramural fussing as not important but it is. The New York Times is still the headwaters for a lot of content that gets recycled, reused, and regurgitated in all directions as it rolls down the news and information mountain. It’s just how it is. So yes, it matters when the “news” side and the “opinion” side of the New York Times go to war over whose paper it really is.
And let’s not kid ourselves here. There is a lot of interpersonal and business relationship going on when things like this happen. The guy in charge making mistakes is the cue for folks with long held grievances to start airing laundry for their own purposes. Add in the layer that the news media’s favorite story template is how the news media covers the news, and you have a crossing of the streams New York City hasn’t seen since Ray Stantz childhood memory nearly ended life on Earth as we know it.
Media in America is changing rapidly. Folks who spend their entire lives getting into positions to dictate the discourse at places like the New York Times are not going to suddenly devalue those gains. Throw in a fight over purity of thought and intention, instead of the airing of well written opinions of the editors and op-eds — in the original meaning of “opposite the editorial page” and those who are in charge of it — who are the hallmarks of a vibrant opinion page. If “All the news that is fit to print” becomes an argument more than a mission statement, and it looks like that epoch has come, a bunch of Americans are going to take one look at that paywall and see fit to find their news elsewhere.
Then where will the New York Times be? The “paper of record” for the country relegated to insider media newsletter isn’t good for the New York Times, for journalism, for media, and certainly not good for the country.
But the country can live without the New York Times if they absolutely insist on it.